Lymphoedema is swelling, usually in the arms or legs, caused by an impairment or dysfunction in the lymphatic system. As a result of this impairment, there is an abnormal accumulation of lymph fluid and inadequate drainage of this fluid. While it is mostly found in the arms and legs, it can also occur in the neck, face, abdomen and genitals. In most instances, while it may feel like the entire limb/ body part is swollen, the swelling is found in the layer between the skin and the most superficial muscle layer. Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that is not curable at present. It tends to progress or worsen if not treated. While not curable, lymphoedema can be well controlled with effective and skilled treatment.

Images below show the effects of lymphoedema:

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Lymphoedema of the leg (untreated)

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Lymphoedema of the leg (untreated)

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Advanced lymphoedema of the leg (untreated)

Is all swelling lymphoedema?

Swelling may be present for many different reasons and the causes vary widely. Not all swelling is lymphoedema. Correct diagnosis is therefore very important to ensure that the treatment is targeted correctly.

One very important feature that defines Lymphoedema is that the swelling has relatively high protein content. When the large molecule proteins that can only be drained away from the body tissues lymphatically are not absorbed by the lymphatic system (due to some dysfunction in the lymphatic system), they stay in the tissues and keep drawing fluid into the tissues as well, resulting in oedema (swelling).