Causes of Lymphoedema

An awareness of the causes of lymphoedema and the associated risk factors is important so that those at risk, their families, carers and healthcare professionals can detect and/or monitor any signs and symptoms and report them quickly. It is also important to note that lymphoedema can develop many years after a causative event, so being vigilant is very important. 

There are two main types of lymphoedema – primary lymphoedema and secondary lymphoedema. The causes are different for each type as listed below:

Primary lymphoedema 

Primary lymphoedema is congenital - a genetic fault that is usually due to an under development or weakness of the lymphatic vessels in the womb. This may lead to a swelling that is noticeable at birth (or just after) however, it may also appear much later in life. Primary lymphoedema can sometimes be congenital and hereditary. That is, it may run in families - passed on from one affected family member to another.

Secondary lymphoedema

Secondary lymphoedema may develop for many reasons but occurs generally when the lymphatic system is either damaged or overloaded. 

A damaged lymphatic system maybe the result of:

  • Complications from cancer treatment such as surgery (particularly when lymph nodes are removed), radiotherapy and some chemotherapy/hormone treatment. In addition, seroma formation and axillary web syndrome may contribute to the development of lymphoedema.
  • A wound or skin infection (such as cellulitis), especially when repeated attacks of infection are problematic. 
  • Severe injury, surgery (for example, vein stripping for a heart by-pass), burns or other trauma

An overloaded lymphatic system maybe the result of:

  • Reduced or limited movement, paralysis or muscle weakness (for example, following a stroke)
  • Blood vessels not working correctly; for example, in patients suffering from varicose veins, leg ulcers or following a deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  • Obesity as being overweight can add additional stress to the lymphatic system putting pressure onto lymph nodes and vessels
  • Chronic skin disorders such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Certain inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cancer regression, localised and/or advancing tumour may block local drainage
  • Certain medication given for other medical conditions may cause swelling (also known as oedema) which, if left untreated, may lead to lymphoedema

Please do not make any changes to any recommended treatment for ANY condition without seeking medical advice first from a healthcare professional. This is important even if you are concerned you may have lymphoedema.  

Click here to learn more about the types of lymphoedema.