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Lymphoedema

A localized accumulation of fluid in the lymphatic vessels, causing painless swelling of a limb

  • More common in females
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Age and lifestyle are not significant factors

Lymphoedema occurs when a defect in the lymphatic vessels prevents drainage of lymph from a limb. Most commonly, lymphoedema is caused by damage to the lymphatic vessels following surgery or radiotherapy, for example in the treatment of breast cancer. Rarely, the condition may be due to the blockage of a lymphatic vessel by a cancerous growth in a lymph node.

Lymphoedema can be inherited, in which case it results from incomplete development of the lymphatic vessels. This type is more common in women.

Although the symptoms of lymphoedema may be present from birth, they usually first occur at puberty. The main symptom is painless swelling of a limb. The skin over the affected limb often becomes rough and thickened. Injury to a limb affected by lymphoedema may result in a rapid spread of infection through the tissues. You should contact your doctor immediately if you injure a limb affected by lymphoedema.

In most cases, lymphoedema is a lifelong disorder and treatment is aimed at relieving the symptoms. You can reduce swelling by keeping the affected limb elevated; wearing an elastic stocking or sleeve helps to prevent further swelling.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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