Lymphoedema is characterised by swelling of certain parts of the body, caused by problems with the lymphatic system. Any part of the body can be affected by lymphoedema, but it tends to target the arms and legs.
Normally, fluid and proteins leak into the body tissues regularly from the blood. This tissue fluid bathes the cells, supplies them with nutrients and clears any old products of metabolism.
The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drains this fluid from tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream. When this system is not working properly, lymphoedema can occur.
Patients who have undergone surgery and radiotherapy for treatment of cancer are particularly susceptible to lymphoedema of the arms or legs and, sometimes, the abdomen or suprapubic area.
Some patients are born with structural problems of the lymphatic system. The vessels may pump sluggishly or there may be insufficient numbers of vessels, or both may occur. Primary lymphoedema may be present before birth (congenital lymphoedema) or may develop during puberty (lymphoedema praecox) or middle age (lymphoedema tarda).
For those patients who have a structural problem with the lymphatic system, the risk of developing a secondary lymphoedema overlying it is higher if they have surgery or radiotherapy for cancer treatment or other surgeries.
There are several surgical options to improve lymphoedema. These include: