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What is Lymph?

What it does

Lymph is a clear fluid that circulates the body through lymphatic vessels. This system is responsible for removing excess fluid from the body tissues, as well as filtering the fluid to remove dead cells, bacteria and viruses.

When this system does not function optimally, the result is a build-up of excess fluid in the tissues. This is known as lymphoedema. Some people are born with an incompetent lymphatic system. This is known as primary lymphoedema. However, secondary lymphoedema occurs when an injury occurs to the lymphatic system itself.

A common cause of secondary lymphoedema is a mastectomy (breast removal) with lymph node removal, in the case of aggressive or advanced breast cancer. Other causes may include radiation treatment for cancer, trauma, infection and parasites.

Early detection of lymphoedema improves treatment success and reduces the risk of complications. Therefore it is important to recognize some of the signs and symptoms.

Some of the early symptoms include an achiness or heaviness in the limb or area, without any swelling.

Other signs and symptoms may be:

  • Clothing feels tight or restricting.
  • Jewellery and watches becomes more difficult to put on/take off.
  • Observable swelling with a temporary indentation of the skin when you press on it.
  • Swelling usually starts further away from the heart, namely the hand or foot.
  • Asymmetry between the two arms/legs/sides of the body.
  • Loss of bony contours around joints like elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.
  • Skin texture changes – tightness or hardening, redness, skin outgrowths.

 

Complete Decongestive Therapy is the gold standard for lymphoedema, and is performed by a qualified professional. The treatment may include some or all of the following:

  • Compression bandaging and garments.
  • Manual lymph drainage.
  • Exercise.
  • Skin and nail care.
  • Self-care.