Diagnosing Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema, a condition which causes swelling in the body’s tissues, is thought to affect over 200,000 people in the UK

Along-term chronic condition, lymphoedema can cause swelling to any part of the body, but usually affects the arms or legs. It is divided into two main types—primary and secondary—that have a different cause and prevalence. According to the NHS, primary lymphoedema, the rarer type, only affects as many as one in 6,000 people. It occurs as a result of mutations in the genes responsible for the development of the lymphatic system. These damaged genes cause the parts of the lymphatic system that drain fluid to not properly do so. Primary lymphoedema can also be hereditary; however, not every child born to someone with the condition will go on to develop it.

Secondary lymphoedema has many different causes and can develop in individuals who previously had a normal functioning lymphatic system. Some of these causes include: treatment for cancer, as surgery can involve removing sections of the lymphatic system; radiotherapy, as it can damage healthy tissue; infections such as cellulitis; inflammations such as rheumatoid arthritis and eczema; obesity; trauma and injury; and venous diseases such as deep vein thrombosis and varicose veins.

Diagnosing lymphoedema

It’s important that the condition is identified as soon as possible, as it can get worse without treatment. If you experience swelling in your arms and legs, visit your doctor. In many cases, lymphoedema can be diagnosed by medical history and symptoms alone. Occasionally, your doctor may refer you to a specialist or lymphoedema treatment centre for further testing.


Although there is no cure available for lymphoedema, it is possible to control its symptoms. This can be done by minimising fluid buildup and stimulating the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system. Individuals may control their symptoms by wearing compression garments, looking after their skin, exercising regularly, consuming a healthy diet and using specialist massage techniques.


Although the main symptom associated with lymphoedema is swelling, other symptoms may include:

  • An aching, heavy feeling
  • Difficulty with movement
  • Repeated skin infections
  • Hard, tight skin
  • Folds developing in the skin
  • Wart-like growths on the skin
  • Fluid leaking through the skin

Did you know?

Secondary lymphoedema affects around 2 in 10 women with breast cancer, 5 in 10 women with vulval cancer and 3 in 10 men with penile cancer

Source: NHS Choices

This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here. 

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