Lymphoedema is a chronic (long-term) condition that causes swelling in the body's tissues. It can affect any part of the body, but usually develops in the arms or legs.
A recent study has suggested that over 200,000 people in the UK may be living with lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is caused by a problem with the lymphatic system. This is a network of vessels and glands distributed throughout the body. Its major functions are helping to fight infection and drain excess fluid from tissues.
Abnormal development of the lymphatic system, damage to it, and/or an increase in fluid in the body tissues can all lead to lymphoedema.
There are two main types of lymphoedema:
- primary lymphoedema – caused by faulty genes affecting the development of the lymphatic system; it can develop at any age, but usually occurs in early adulthood
- secondary lymphoedema – caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system, often due to an infection, injury, cancer treatment, inflammation of the limb or a lack of limb movement
The lymphatic system consists of a series of lymph nodes (glands) connected by a network of vessels, similar to blood vessels.
Fluid surrounding body tissues usually drains into nearby lymph vessels so it can be transported back into the blood. However, if the lymph vessels are blocked, the fluid can't be reabsorbed and will build up in the tissue.
Unlike oedema, lymphoedema is a long-term condition that can cause discomfort, pain and a loss of mobility.
It can't be cured, but it can be controlled using a number of treatments, including compression stockings, skin care, lymphatic massage and elevation. Often finding suitable footwear is a problem when trying to accommodate swelling in the foot and ankle.
Oedema is the medical term for fluid retention in the body.
The build-up of fluid causes affected tissue to become swollen. The swelling can occur in one particular part of the body – for example, as the result of an injury – or it can be more general.
Oedema can occur anywhere in the body, but it's most common in the feet and ankles. This is known as peripheral oedema.
As well as swelling or puffiness of the skin, oedema can also cause:
- skin discolouration
- areas of skin that temporarily hold the imprint of your finger when pressed (known as pitting oedema)
- aching, tender limbs
- stiff joints
- weight gain or weight loss
- raised blood pressure and pulse rate
Oedema usually clears up by itself. However, your GP may suggest some self-help measures to reduce fluid retention, such as:
- losing weight (if you're overweight)
- taking regular exercise, such as walking, swimming or cycling
- raising your legs three to four times a day to improve your circulation
- avoiding standing for long periods of time
If an underlying condition is causing the fluid imbalance, it should clear up after the condition has been diagnosed and treated.