Condition Guides Lymphoedema – A Guide

Lymphoedema – A Guide


What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is an abnormal collection of fluid (lymph) beneath the skin that results in swelling (oedema). It most commonly occurs in the legs and arms, but can also affect the breast, trunk, head, neck and genitals.

For Lymphoedema, Daylong recommends:

What causes lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema occurs when the lymph vessels that carry lymph around the body are damaged or missing. This prevents lymph from draining away from the tissues, causing fluid to build up in the affected area.

Primary lymphoedema is caused when people are born with missing or malformed lymph vessels.

Secondary lymphoedema occurs when the lymph vessels and/or lymph nodes are damaged or removed as a result of disease, injury or surgery. This is the most common type of lymphoedema.

What are the risk factors for lymphoedema?

The most common causes of secondary lymphoedema in the lower limb(s) are:

  • Chronic venous insufficiency
  • Thrombophlebitis
  • Surgery
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Traumatic injury
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Immobility
  • Pregnancy
  • Chronic skin conditions and inflammation.


Most common causes of upper limb/trunk lymphoedema are:

  • Breast cancer surgery and/or radiotherapy
  • Obesity
  • Chronic skin conditions and inflammation
  • Hypertension.


The early signs and symptoms of lymphoedema may include:

  • Clothing or jewelry feeling tighter than usual
  • Swelling, that reduces after rest
  • Feeling of heaviness, tightness, fullness or stiffness


As the lymphoedema worsens, symptoms may include:

  • Distortion of limb shape
  • Permanent swelling
  • Hard, wood-like skin
  • Reduced mobility
  • Skin folds
  • Wart-like growths (papillomatosis)
  • Leaking fluid (lymphorrhea)


Currently, lymphoedema can’t be cured. Management of the condition aims to reduce fluid build-up in the tissues. This is often achieved using a combination of:

Exercise and/or movement

To help move lymph and blood from the tissues. Exercising while wearing compression increases its beneficial effects.

Manual lymphatic drainage

To manually move fluid from the tissues.

Compression therapy

To support the limb and reduce swelling.  If the swelling of the limb is mild, and its shape is not distorted then compression hosiery may be used (following full nurse assessment). If there is significant swelling that distorts limb shape, or if there is a wound or skin changes, compression bandaging may need to be used initially until healing is achieved and/or swelling is reduced.

Skin care

To avoid breaks in the skin that may lead to infection (cellulitis).


A number of steps can be taken to prevent lymphoedema occurring in at risk individuals:

  • Good skin and nail care
  • The use of compression hosiery
  • Maintenance of optimal weight
  • Balanced nutrition
  • Exercise, movement and elevation of the affected limb.


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The Lymphoedema Support Network


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