Lymphoedema occurs when the lymphatic system is compromised in some way, either because it has not formed properly (primary lymphoedema) or due to some form of injury (secondary lymphoedema). This injury can be caused by trauma or, more often, surgery and/or radiotherapy associated with treatment for cancer. It can occur anywhere in the body.

In both cases the lymphatic system is unable to transport the proper volume of fluid from the tissues back to the blood circulation. The fluid and its contents then accumulate in the tissues leading to swelling, heaviness, tightness and sometimes aches and pains in the affected area.

Lymphoedema develops at varying rates. The sooner it is recognized, treated, and managed the more effectively the swelling can be reduced and the subsequent damage to tissues kept to a minimum. As lymphoedema progresses, the tissues change from being mostly fluid rich, to fatty and then to fibrous. Lymphoedema can be controlled by appropriate lifestyle choices, self-care, and depending on its severity, regular treatments to minimize the formation of fibrosis.

Symptoms of Lymphoedema

  • Swelling (oedema), that is not reduced by diuretic medication
  • Heaviness or tightness in the affected area
  • Aches and pains in limb with possible tingling sensation in hand or foot

Professor Neil Piller
Long-term advisor to and supporter of the Tasmanian Lymphoedema and Laser Therapy Centre, Neil Piller, is a Professor in Lymphology and Director of the Lymphoedema Assessment Clinic in Flinders Surgical Oncology, and a member of the Department of Surgery, School of Medicine at the Flinders University Medical Centre in Adelaide, South Australia.