The lymphatic system is part of your circulatory system, consisting of a network of vessels that carry a protein-rich clear fluid called lymph from the tissues directionally towards the heart. It helps control fluid and protein levels in the body and plays an important role in your immune system by filtering out bacteria, viruses and other microbes and storing white bloods cells.
Lymphoedema is a chronic swelling due to an accumulation of lymph fluid. It usually occurs in the arms or legs but can occur in other parts of the body. Lymphoedema can be either primary – where the lymphatic system is inadequate, or secondary – where the lymphatic system has been damaged or block following surgery (usually cancer related), radiation therapy, other medical conditions or infection.
The first signs of lymphoedema can bean unexplained, low and painless swelling which may be indented by pressure. As swelling increases, discomfort, ache and feelings of heaviness can be experienced followed by a loss of mobility and function. Altered body image, changed appearance and the loss of everyday life skills caused by lymphoedema can result in anxiety and depression.
Lymphoedema can be managed. Treatment is aimed at reducing the swelling of the affected body part and restoring function. It may include a combination of specialised lymphatic drainage massage, bandaging, compression garments, exercises and skin care. As with any condition, the earlier lymphoedema is diagnosed and treated, the more successful the outcome.