Swelling caused by fluid build-up in the body

Lymphoedema is chronic swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in the body tissue, usually in the arms and legs.


When the body’s lymphatic system doesn’t work properly it can cause a build-up of fluid in the body tissue, rather than draining it away. It’s most common in the arms and legs, and causes chronic (ongoing) swelling. There are two types of lymphoedema – primary lymphoedema and secondary lymphoedema.

Need to know

  • Causes and symptoms of lymphoedema icon plus

    The lymphatic system transports fluid from body tissues into the blood circulation. If this doesn't work properly it can cause fluids to build-up.

    Primary lymphoedema is linked to genes and means the lymphatic system hasn't developed properly.

    Secondary lymphoedema is caused by damage to your lymphatic system due to:
    • infection, injury
    • cancer
    • inflamed limbs
    • venous diseases such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or varicose veins

    The main symptom of lymphoedema is swelling in your arms and legs. It may also cause:br>
    • achy, heavy feelings
    • hard, tight skin
    • skin infections or growths like warts
    • difficulty moving freely
    • leaking fluid through the skin
  • Diagnosis icon plus

    It’s usually possible to diagnose lymphoedema by examining the affected part of the body to see the extent of the swelling and assess other symptoms. Your consultant will also take your medical history into account.

    Some other tests may be used, including:

    • bioimpedance test - using electrodes to pick up any fluid in your body tissue
    • imaging tests - such as an MRI scan, ultrasound, CT scan, X-ray or lymphoscintigram
    • Measuring the volume of the limb with tape measures, water displacement tests or infrared lights (perometry)
  • Potential treatment options icon plus

    Lymphoedema is a chronic, lifelong condition. While there is no treatment to cure it, there are ways to manage it.

    Treatment for Lymphoedema is called Decongestive Lymphatic Therapy (DLT) and consists of:

    • skin care – daily cleaning and moisturising to reduce infection
    • exercise – helping to keep your weight within normal limits, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce swelling
    • compression bandages and garments – helping to move fluid out of the affected area
    • manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) - a type of physiotherapy that uses light, rhythmic massage techniques to move excess fluid (lymph) towards healthy lymph nodes

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This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
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