What is Lymphoedema?

Short answer: Lymphoedema (pronounced lim-fe-dema) is a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the lymphatic system – a crucial part of the immune system – which circulates infection-fighting fluid (lymph) around the body.

Long answer:

Lymphoedema is a complex condition which is not broadly researched or understood, even throughout the medical and allied health professions. For sufferers, it can be challenging to locate qualified professionals to both diagnose and treat the condition. We are fortunate to have a qualified lymphoedema practitioner, Vera of Co-Connect Physiotherapy, here at WLC Medical.

Our lymphatic system plays a crucial part in our body’s immune responses by transporting fluid (lymph), which is made up of proteins and infection-fighting cells, throughout our body. Our lymph nodes filter the fluid to remove invading organisms and dead or abnormal cells. When this system fails or falters, excess fluid accumulates and presents as swelling – most commonly in one or more limbs – but it may also affect the torso, breast, head and neck or genital area.

Primary lymphoedema may be present before birth (congenital lymphoedema) or can be acquired or developed during puberty (lymphoedema praecox) or middle age (lymphoedema tarda). It is characterised by structural problems with the lymphatic system and can increase the risk of developing secondary lymphoedema following surgery or cancer treatment.

Secondary lymphoedema is the most common type of lymphoedema and occurs following trauma or damage to the lymphatic system, which can result from cancer treatment, including the removal of lymph nodes or radiotherapy and as a result of malignant disease. Swelling may occur within months of the damage or can develop years later. The swelling can be painful, affecting movement, and can increase the risk of infections.

Some studies have linked excessive weight gain with the development of lymphoedema suggesting that excess weight can be a risk factor for both primary and secondary lymphoedema.

However it is acquired, lymphoedema is a distressing and difficult condition to manage, and most practitioners stress the importance of early intervention to gain the best outcomes. Sufferers report that their mental health can be adversely affected due to the ongoing and protracted nature of the disorder in addition to the lack of understanding of it by medical professionals, families and the general public. One sufferer, featured in an article in The Guardian, said that the fear, swelling and stress of life with lymphoedema ‘messes with you mentally’.

If you or someone you know has, or is at risk of developing lymphoedema, it is important to be aware of the condition, as early diagnosis and intervention results in vastly improved outcomes and ease of management. It is important that a qualified and accredited practitioner is consulted to ensure appropriate intervention.

Vera of Co-Connect Physiotherapy is accredited and qualified to both diagnose and treat lymphoedema. WLC’s psychologist, Dave Simich is on hand to help with mental health support and our dietitian, Andrea Kunneke, can assist with dietary advice and weight management. Here at WLC Medical, we welcome the opportunity to support and educate our patients to be their happiest and healthiest selves, so don’t hesitate to give us a call if we can be of any assistance.