What is lymphoedema?

Home / What is lymphoedema?

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is pronounced lim-fo-dee-ma. It is a long-term (chronic) swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in the body’s tissues. This happens when the lymphatic system, which normally drains fluid away, is unable to work properly. Lymphoedema can affect any part of the body.

The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system and carries a fluid called lymph. It is a one-way drainage system made up of channels (lymphatic vessels) starting underneath the skin and ending in the neck. This system works together with the blood system to transport the lymph fluid and remove waste products.

  • The lymphatic system acts like a waste disposal unit to help drain away fluids and waste matter known as lymph from the body’s tissues.
  • It is also part of the body’s immune system and helps to prevent infection.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What causes lymphoedema?

The two main types of lymphoedema are primary lymphoedema and secondary lymphoedema.

Primary lymphoedema develops if you have a body structure that puts you at a higher risk. This is known as a congenital or genetic abnormality of the lymphatic system. You may be born with this condition or it may develop at puberty or later in life.

Secondary lymphoedema develops because of damage to lymphatic vessels or from an overload of fluid in the tissue. Secondary lymphoedema may develop for the following reasons:

  • Damage to the lymphatic system due to the removal of lymph nodes, radiotherapy to lymph nodes, extensive scarring or large wounds.
  • Advanced cancer causing a blockage in the lymphatic system.
  • Problems with veins, such as deep vein thrombosis.
  • Infections such as cellulitis or filariasis (a parasitic infection carried by mosquitoes in some African and Asian countries).
  • Inflammation including rheumatoid arthritis and other long-term conditions.
  • Not being able to move around due to paralysis or neurological conditions.
  • Obesity, which is a major risk factor for lymphoedema.

Read other people’s stories of diagnosis and life with lymphoedema on our blog. If you would like to share your own story, please get in touch!