The lymphatic system is a drainage system and part of the immune system. The system is made up of lymphatic vessels, nodes, specific organs and lymph fluid. The lymph fluid is protein rich and contains immune cells that protect the body against infection and disease.
Lymphoedema is a specific swelling (oedema) that occurs when the lymphatic system does not adequately drain the lymph from the tissues under the skin.
This can occur if parts of the lymphatic system develop incorrectly before birth, are damaged, or overwhelmed by the effect of other medical conditions.
Lymphoedema is a chronic condition and can be progressive. Over time the skin and tissues of the swollen limb can become hard and are more difficult to manage. Infections also cause scarring of the skin, tissues and vessels, which can cause the lymphoedema to become a greater problem.
There are two classifications of lymphoedema:
Results from a malformation or poorly functioning lymphatic system from birth. It may only become apparent later in life when the lymph system is challenged by circumstances such as an injury, pregnancy or infection.
Results from an obstruction to the lymphatic tracts or damage to the lymphatic vessels or nodes. It can result from many causes such as cancer treatment where surgery or radiotherapy has damaged lymph nodes and vessels.
Lymphoedema may also occur after traumas (severe cuts or burns), parasites (filariasis), severe infections and a consequence of a combination of medical conditions. Secondary lymphoedema may occur at any time, months or years after the lymphatics have been damaged.
Signs and symptoms of lymphoedema
Some of the common signs and symptoms include:
- Swelling to a part of the body
- Feelings of heaviness and tension
Short term swelling often occurs after surgery, but this generally settles over a few weeks. Not all swelling is chronic lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema may be diagnosed by your GP, oncologist or lymphoedema health professional based on your symptoms and past medical history and volume changes. Investigations such bioimpedance spectroscopy, lymphoscintigram, ICG and doppler may all be useful. More imaging tools are being developed.
If your life has been affected by Lymphoedema, you never have to feel alone with LAQ on your side. Making the choice to connect, feel supported and learn more about the condition from the collective experiences of other members can make a world of difference and be life-changing.