A Disease Impacting Millions, known by few
Lymphoedema is a long-term swelling that has been present for three months or more. It is a life-long, chronic condition in which excess fluid builds up in the tissues causing a swelling, known as oedema. The swelling maybe caused by the absence of lymph vessels, damage or obstruction of the lymphatic system or because the lymphatic system is overloaded (due to other conditions such as venous disease).
The lymphatics form part of your immune system, helping to deal with infection at a local level, but just as importantly, they are responsible for cleansing your tissues and maintaining a balance of fluids in your body. It can be likened to a waste disposal system, taking tissue fluid, bacteria, proteins and waste products, away from the tissues around the skin, fat, muscle and bone. If, for whatever reason, the lymphatic system is not working correctly (such as a result of damage, trauma or surgery) or the vessels do not have the ability to drain adequately, the fluid in the tissues builds up (just like when a river is dammed and flooding occurs). Swelling occurs when the amount of fluid in an area is greater than the capacity of the lymphatic system to transport it away. Lymphoedema [lim-fa-dee-mah] can therefore be defined as “an abnormal accumulation of protein rich fluid in the tissues”. The swelling can be in any part of the body, most often in the arms and legs, but also the breast or chest wall, head and neck, or genitals.
Lymphoedema has no known cure. However, with correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment, there is much that can be done to help manage and effectively control the symptoms. Left untreated, the condition may deteriorate leading to an increase in swelling, discomfort and reduced mobility. Many people experience swelling for months, even years, before assessment, diagnosis and treatment are initiated. It is important to understand the condition, recognise the signs and symptoms and get help as soon as possible so that the lymphoedema can be managed effectively.
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