Lymphoedema

The Lymphatic System

A healthy lymphatic system moves fluid, macromolecules and formed elements from the interstitial spaces into the lymphatic vessels, once it enters the lymphatic system it is called lymph fluid. From the initial lymphatics, the lymph is transported through the lymphatic system and into the many lymph nodes along it pathways until it finally enters the blood stream at the subclavian veins (at the neck).

Lymphoedema is the swelling of localised soft tissues as a result of the accumulation of protein rich fluid in the extra cellular spaces. It occurs most frequently in the limbs, but can present in the breast, head, neck, abdomen, and genitalia. There are two types of Lymphoedema. Even though there is no cure for Lymphoedema, with the appropriate treatment the swelling can be reduced and a suitable maintenance programme can keep it under control.

Primary LE

Primary LE, is caused by an abnormality due to inadequate or non-function of the lymphatic vessels. Primary LE that is present at birth is called congenital lymphoedema, when it develops in adolescence or mid-life it is called praecox and lymphoedema tarda presents late in life.

Secondary LE

Secondary LE can occur following damage to the lymphatic system by surgery, injury or radiotherapy. It is most commonly seen following surgery for cancer of the breast, pelvis, resection for melanoma and head and neck surgery. Secondary LE can occur following injury or accident where the lymphatic pathway and nodes are damaged. It can also develop following parasitic infection and this is known as Filarisis, usually in the continents of Africa and India. Swelling of the legs can also develop as a result of venous insufficiency and varicose veins.

Related links:

Treatment of Lymphoedema
Complications of Lymphoedema

3D view of lymphatic system of the upper body

Primary Lymphoedema

Secondary Lymphoedema