What is Lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a chronic condition caused by a failure in the lymph system, meaning lymph is not draining from the body. There are many reasons why it might fail, but the end result is generally the same: a build-up of fluid in the tissues causing chronic swelling and thickened skin.

It can occur anywhere there is impaired flow in the lymph system. For example, a problem with the lymph glands in the left armpit could lead to Lymphoedema occuring anywhere ‘up river’ from that point – i.e. the left breast, the upper left-handside of the trunk and the whole left arm.

My Lymphoedema is located in my left leg, which is nearly double the size of my right leg. I experience, like nearly all Lymphies, two common symptoms:

  • Fluid retention and swelling: Lymphoedema literally means ‘swelling caused by the build-up of lymph fluid’. This swelling can make your skin feel tight, bloated and heavy and these symptoms are particularly noticeable when put under extra stress. Lymph tends to have a solid texture to it and this is due to the various waste elements and immune cells it contains.
  • Thickening skin: for some reason, Lymphoedema causes the skin of the effected body part(s) to harden. It can often become twice as thick as regular skin and if not looked after correctly, can develop a warty complexion similar in apperance to the bark of a tree or elephant skin. Medical professionals don’t know why this happens, but it’s probably a response to the fluid collection within the skin, as well as the effect of inflammation from the disturbed immune cells.

If you suffer with Lymphoedema or have been recently diagnosed, you will need to find yourself a qualified Lymphoedema therapist. Although there is not yet a cure for Lymphoedema, there are various techniques for keeping it under control and reducing the impact it can have on your day-to-day life.

  • Exercise and physical therapy: I practice yoga, cycling and swimming, the latter being particularly effective.
  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD): This comes in the form of lymphatic massage, of which there are a few varieties orginating from different schools.
  • Compression: You might have seen images of individuals bandaged like an Egyptian Mummy. This is in fact a highly effective treatment for squeezing out lymph fluid and it does require a trained pair of hands. However, we mortals can also wear compression garments which are essentially extremely tight stockings.
  • Skin care: Moisturising your skin twice a day is a simple yet effective method for keeping your skin strong. For us Lymphies, skin care is essential. Our skin is not only the largest organ in the human body, it is the first line of defence against nasty infections like cellulitis.

The above information has been sourced from the book Let’s Talk Lymphoedema, which was written by a number of specialists, and compiled by the photographer Gemma Levine, and Lymphoedema expert Professor Peter Mortimer. I highly recommend you purchase the book as I guarantee you will learn a thing or two about what is a bizarre and complicated condition.