Lymphoedema is swelling that occurs in soft tissue. If lymph nodes have been damaged during surgery for head and neck cancer or removed in a lymphadenectomy, it may prevent lymph fluid from draining properly. This causes fluid build-up and swelling.

Swelling usually occurs in a limb such as the arm or leg, but can also occur in the neck.

For more on this call Cancer Council 13 11 20, download a booklet from this page, or see Lymphoedema.

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What are the risk factors?

People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the neck are more at risk, especially if both sides are treated.

The likelihood of developing lymphoedema will also depend on the number of lymph nodes removed during surgery. 

Signs of lymphoedema

Symptoms of lymphoedema are easier to manage if the condition is treated early. The main signs include:

  • swelling
  • redness and skin warmth, which may come and go.

Preventing and managing lymphoedema

Sometimes the swelling and other signs of lymphoedema can take months or years to develop, although some people who are at risk never develop the condition.

In many hospitals, a lymphoedema practitioner will assess you before you have surgery. Some hospitals have specialist physiotherapists who can teach you simple exercises to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema practitioners can provide education on prevention and provide a personalised treatment program. This may include lymphatic drainage massage, exercises, low level laser therapy, skin care and compression garments, if needed. There are also outpatient and private lymphoedema practitioners.

Visit for a copy of Cancer Australia’s booklet Lymphoedema – what you need to knowAustralasian Lymphology Association has a directory of lymphoedema practitioners. You can also download Cancer Council’s Understanding Lymphoedema fact sheet from this page.

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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