Swelling of the face or neck (lymphoedema) after treatment

After surgery, it is common to have some swelling in your face or neck. This usually goes away within a few weeks. But sometimes people who have had an operation to remove lymph nodes from their neck develop long-term swelling. This is called lymphoedema. It happens because the lymphatic system, which normally drains fluid away, is not working properly.

Lymphoedema may be worse in the morning and improve as the day goes on. As well as causing swelling you can see in the face or neck, it can also affect tissues inside the neck, such as the throat or larynx (voicebox). This can cause difficulty speaking, swallowing or breathing.

Always tell your GP or cancer specialist if you notice swelling in your face or neck. They can arrange for you to have tests to find what is causing it. Lymphoedema is usually treated by a lymphoedema therapist. Your GP, specialist doctor or health professional at the hospital can refer you to one.

Skincare

It is important to look after the skin on your head, face and neck if you have had any lymph nodes in your neck removed. This can help to reduce the risk of developing lymphoedema. It is also an important way of managing lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema can make your skin dry, itchy and more fragile than before. Any break in the skin increases your risk of infection, which can make swelling worse.

What you can do:

  • Use soap-free cleansers that do not dry the skin.
  • If you shave, use a clean electric razor.
  • Moisturise daily with unperfumed cream or lotion.
  • If you get any cuts or grazes, wash the area carefully and put antiseptic cream on straight away.
  • Protect your face and neck when you are in the sun. Wear a hat and suncream with a sun protection factor of at least 30 (SPF30).
  • Wear insect repellent to prevent bites or stings as these can make lymphoedema worse.
  • See your GP straight away if you develop any sign of infection in your skin such as tenderness, redness, heat, discharge or a new area of swelling.

Treating lymphoedema

One of the main treatments for lymphoedema is a type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). MLD encourages and improves the movement of lymph fluid from swollen areas. NHS lymphoedema treatment clinics often provide MLD. You can also do a version of MLD, called simple lymphatic drainage (SLD), at home. Your lymphoedema or MLD therapist can teach you this.

Some people are given compression garments to help to keep swelling down. They work by stopping fluid from gathering in the affected tissues. You should only wear a compression garment that has been fitted by a lymphoedema specialist. Poorly-fitting garments can do more harm than good.

Lymphoedema can affect your appearance and how you see yourself. It is important to get support from professionals and those close to you if you need it. We have information and advice about dealing with changes to your body image.

My husband was given exercises and massage as well as a compression bandage to wear at night. These worked really well and the swelling went right down and has stayed down.

Julia