Lymphoedema / Lymphedema is the term used to describe chronic, protein rich swelling that can occur anywhere in the body, but most commonly affects the limbs.

Lymphoedema can be classified as Primary or Secondary, depending on the cause. Primary Lymphoedema may be present at birth, develop at puberty or in mid-life, and relates to abnormal functioning of the lymphatic system.

Secondary lymphoedema may occur following treatment for cancer, surgery, radiation therapy, recurrent infections or trauma.

Lymphoedema is not totally curable, but it can be controlled and managed so that it has little or no effect on what you can do. If lymphoedema is left untreated, there is a risk that it may worsen over time.

Identification of people with lymphoedema is important as it causes significant physical and psychological illness as well as social isolation and economic hardship.

Lymphoedema may be much more common than official estimates

Primary lymphoedema has a prevalence of around 1 in 6,000 population while the overall prevalence of lymphoedema has been estimated at 0.13% in previous UK studies. The total UK population is 60,975,000. So the published estimate is about 70,000 people living with lymphoedema of all causes.

But recent research carried out in general practice in the Bristol area indicates that the prevalence is nearer 1.3% to 1.8%. That would suggest there are really between 793,000 and 1,098,000 people in the UK who have lymphoedema – and those are just the ones who are known to their GPs.

Lymphoedema is most commonly thought to be associated with cancer treatment but a study of the prevalence of lymphoedema in South West London found only 25% of cases were due to cancer therapy.

Other risk factors for developing secondary or acquired lymphoedema include orthopaedic surgery, recurrent cellulitis, varicose vein stripping, vein harvesting for coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), thrombophlebitis, chronic venous insufficiency, immobilization and, in developing countries, filariasis.

The Bristol study showed that only 21.6% of the lymphoedema patients had had a diagnosis of cancer and subsequent treatment – the majority of those had had breast cancer. More than three quarters of the patients had non-cancer related lymphoedema. Causes included: Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT),Knee replacement, Recurrent cellulitis, Coronary Artery Bypass Graft vein harvest, Total hip replacement, Varicose vein operations, and Immobility after a stroke.