What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is swelling that develops because of a build-up of lymph fluid in the body’s tissues. Lymphoedema happens when the lymphatic system is not working properly.

Lymph fluid normally flows through a network of lymph vessels. These lymph vessels connect to a group of lymph nodes. The nodes act as a filter. They trap or destroy anything harmful that the body does not need. Inside the lymph nodes are white blood cells, also called lymphocytes. These white blood cells attack and break down bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells.

You have nodes throughout your body. Lymph nodes vary in size. Some are as small as a pinhead, and others are about the size of a baked bean. The number of lymph nodes in the body differs from person to person.

The lymph fluid carries the waste products and destroyed bacteria back into the bloodstream.

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is swelling that develops because of a build-up of lymph fluid in the body’s tissues. The lymphatic system usually drains the fluid away. Lymphoedema happens when the lymphatic system is not working properly. It can happen anywhere in the body, including the arms, legs, head and neck, chest area and genital area.

Lymphoedema is a chronic swelling. That means it never goes away completely, because you cannot undo the causes. But it is usually possible to reduce the swelling, especially if it is diagnosed early. Specialists in lymphoedema can assess and treat it. They can also teach you how to manage it yourself.

An image of Dawn Heal, a lymphoedema nurse specialist, and a colleague looking at a computer.

Lymphoedema videos

Watch our videos to find out about the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema and how to cope.

About our cancer information videos

Lymphoedema videos

Watch our videos to find out about the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema and how to cope.

About our cancer information videos


The lymphatic system

To understand lymphoedema, it helps to know about the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system. It helps protect us from infection and disease. Lymph fluid passes through lymph nodes. A network of lymph vessels connects the lymph nodes together. You have nodes throughout your body.

The lymphatic system
The lymphatic system

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Head and neck lymphatics
Head and neck lymphatics

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Breast lymphatics
Breast lymphatics

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The lymphatic system does different things:

  • it acts as a one-way drainage system – this means it moves fluid from body tissues into the blood circulation
  • it contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which fight infection
  • it gets rid of any waste that cells make.

Lymph vessels

Lymph vessels are a network of tubes. These tubes connect to groups of lymph nodes throughout the body. Some vessels are just under the skin. This means breaking the skin can easily damage them.

Lymph fluid travels through the lymph vessels and drains into the bloodstream.

Lymph fluid

This is a colourless fluid that is made in the body. It surrounds all body tissues. Extra fluid from tissue in the body drains into and flows through small lymph vessels. This fluid is filtered through the lymph nodes, and drains back into the bloodstream.

Lymph nodes

There are lymph nodes throughout your body, but mainly in the neck, armpits, groin and tummy (abdomen). They filter and break down bacteria (germs) or other harmful cells from the lymph fluid.

Lymph nodes vary in size. Some are as small as a pinhead, and others are about the size of a baked bean. The number of lymph nodes in the body differs from person to person.

Different parts of the body have different numbers of nodes. For example, there are about 15 to 30 small nodes in the armpit.

How the lymphatic system works

Lymph fluid normally flows through a network of lymph vessels. These lymph vessels connect to a group of lymph nodes. The nodes act as a filter. They trap or destroy anything harmful that the body does not need. Inside the lymph nodes are white blood cells, also called lymphocytes. These white blood cells attack and break down bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells.

The lymph fluid carries the waste products and destroyed bacteria back into the bloodstream. The liver or kidneys then remove these from the blood. The body passes them out with other body waste, through bowel movements (poo) or urine (pee).

Lymph nodes sometimes trap bacteria or viruses that they cannot destroy straight away. For example, they may do this when you have an infection. When the lymph nodes are fighting the infection, they often swell and become sore to touch.

Sometimes, cancer cells spread into the lymph nodes from a cancer somewhere else in the body. This is called secondary cancer in the lymph nodes. Cancer can also start in the lymph nodes themselves. This is called lymphoma. If there is cancer in the lymph nodes, they may swell, but are usually painless.

There are different causes of swollen lymph nodes. But if you notice a painless, swollen lymph node, it is important to get it checked by your GP.

The doctors explained about lymphoedema before surgery and before radiotherapy. They gave me leaflets explaining what it was and how to manage it.

Anne

Back to Lymphoedema

Skin care for lymphoedema

If you have lymphoedema, good skin care is essential. Looking after your skin is an important way of preventing infection.

Lymphatic drainage

Lymphatic drainage is a form of specialised massage that stimulates the lymphatic system. It helps drain fluid away.