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What is Lymphoedema?
The Lymphatic System
Breast Surgery and Treatment ... and Lymphoedema

What is lymphoedema?
The term 'lymphoedema' relates to a build up of lymph fluid under the skin, causing swelling. This is known as lymphoedema.

The Lymphatic System
(Information sourced from the website of the NZ Lymphoedema Therapists)
Lymph flows within the body's lymphatic system, a network of vessels that picks up excess fluid from the body tissues and returns it to the bloodstream near the heart.

Lymph fluid leaks from our blood vessels (this is normal) to surround cells and collect up dead cells, bacteria, cancer cells and other waste.

Lymph moves through the network of vessels at about 120 mls per hour (depending on movement). Lymph moves along through changes in fluid pressures, body movement, breathing and a one way valve system. (The YWCA Encore Programme exercises are particularly beneficial for lymphatic system health!)

As lymph moves along, it is filtered through thousands of bean shaped lymph nodes. Foreign particles, like bacteria, are filtered out and white cells that give immunity are present in the lymph nodes.

Usually 2-4 litres of lymph are moved around the body each day. Lymph vessels can expand but usually carry only about one-tenth their maximum load. When the lymph load is too great, swelling occurs.

Breast Cancer Surgery and Treatment ... and Lymphoedema
If the lymphatic system is damaged to any degree (for example, through lymph node removal during surgery for breast cancer) it may no longer be able to work with 100% efficiency and lymph fluid may begin to build up in the tissues.

Lymphoedema swelling can occur in the limbs, trunk or head and can cause discomfort and loss of movement in the affected area(s).

Axillary dissection, sentinel node biopsy and radiotherapy are the most significant factors in the risk of developing lymphoedema. If you have had these surgical proceedures or treatment, ask your surgeon or breast nurse if lymphoedema is a potential concern for you.

For more information about lymphoedema: general information, prevention, treatment, management and a complete list of Lymphoedema Therapists, please visit the NZ Lymphoedema Therapists website or call BCS on 0800 273 222.

Risk factors for developing lymphoedema:
  • Any surgery (not just cancer surgery) where there is damage to the lymphatic system
  • Radiotherapy to the lymphatic system
  • History of infection in the affected limb/body part
  • Injury or trauma to the lymphatic system
  • Immobility - obesity - filariasis - genetic predisposition

Early warning signs of lymphoedema:
  • Transient swelling following exercise or physical activity
  • Feelings of heaviness in the affected limb/body part
  • Pain or tension in the affected limb/body part
  • Tightness and fullness (a bursting feeling) in the limb/body part
  • Clothing or jewellery becoming tighter

Early warning signs can be present for three years or more prior to the development of swelling.
Intervention at this early stage can have a significant impact on reducing the risk of developing lymphoedema and the severity of the lymphoedema if it does develop.

Helpful Links

To find a lymphoedema therapist in public or private practice:
Visit the Lymphoedema Therapist's NZ site