What is the Lymphatic System?

The Lymphatic System is a network of vessels, lymph nodes and lymphatic organs that circulates protein-rich fluid, called lymph, throughout the body. Its main job is to collect proteins from the tissue and return to the blood; collect bacteria, viruses and waste, then flush them out of your system. The system is an essential part of your immune system and crucial to keeping your body healthy.

What is Lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a swelling that occurs when a blockage or malformation in your Lymphatic System prevents the lymph fluid from draining adequately throughout the body. This can occur anywhere from head to toe.

There are two different types of Lymphoedema: Primary and Secondary. Both cause swelling, mostly in the arms or legs, but have different causes.

What is Lymphoedema?


Primary Lymphoedema can be hereditary, but you could also be the first one in your family to develop it. It can either begin at birth, develop during childhood or occur later in life.

Secondary Lymphoedema is more common and is often caused by surgery after lymph nodes are removed. It can also be the result of cancer, cancer treatment, infections or injury.


Everyone’s symptoms are different and can be more, or less, severe depending on the stage of the condition. Here are some typical indicators to look out for:

  • Progressive swelling of part of your body (typically in arms or legs)
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness in the suspected area
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Aching, pain, or discomfort
  • Recurring infections
  • Hardening, reddening and/or thickening of the skin
  • Skin on the fingers or toes can become squared in appearance as they swell
  • It becomes difficult to see the tendons/bones/veins in your hands or feet

There are many different conditions and circumstances that can cause your limbs to swell. That’s why it’s important to make sure you get the right diagnosis.

Your care provider will ask you to provide your medical history, detailing any current medications, and will give you a physical examination to establish a diagnosis.

In some cases, specialized imaging tests will be ordered to confirm the diagnosis, which may include CT or MRI scans, Doppler ultrasound or Lymphoscintigraphy – a special type of nuclear medicine imaging that provides pictures call scintigrams of the lymphatic system.  

After diagnosis, always ask to see a qualified Lymphoedema Specialist and find out as much as you can about them before your appointment. Ask to see their qualifications and check that the therapist is specifically trained in lymphatic and venous impairments.

Lymphoedema isn’t curable, but there are many things you can do to manage your swelling and prevent your symptoms from getting worse. We can help you find the right treatment and support to manage your condition and live life to the fullest.

  • Keep an eye on any abnormal swelling, changes in feeling, color or skin condition

Watch your weight. You can see if you are within a healthy range by calculating your BMI (link to wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm NIH BMI calculator)

  • Try to avoid injury to the affected area
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing
  • Keep your arms or legs clean
  • Wear your compression garment as directed by your Lymphoedema Therapist

If you have Lymphedema, you’re at risk of developing certain complications:

  • Bacterial infections – Cellulitis, a potentially serious infection and Erysipelas, a superficial infection with a distinctive rash. Both are common and usually cause redness, swelling, pain and warmth.
  • Fungal infections – An itchy, bumpy red rash, odor usually found between the toes or folds of skin.
  • Lymphangitis – An inflammation that occurs when bacteria enters the lymphatic channel.
  • Lymphangiosarcoma – A rare form of soft tissue cancer that, occurs from long standing lymphedema and appears as blue-red or purple marks on the skin.

It’s important to keep an eye on any changes, to prevent potentially serious infections from developing. It might help to keep a diary of your condition and show it to your care provider. 

How is Lymphoedema treated?

Top Tips Lymphoedema

Sometimes, living with Lymphedema can feel like an uphill struggle and you won’t always be able to stick 100% to the plan given by your care provider.

Myth-Busting Lymphoedema

There are so many different sources of information on Lymphedema it can be difficult to sort the myths from reality.

Exercise for Lymphoedema

Gentle activity, such as stretching, strength or aerobic exercise can be beneficial for people living with Lymphedema as it helps to move fluid through the lymphatic system.