Symptoms of lymphoedema | Cancer Research UK
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Symptoms of lymphoedema

This page tells you about the possible symptoms of lymphoedema. There is information about


A quick guide to what’s on this page

The first symptoms of lymphoedema you may notice include

  • Swelling in part of the body – your clothes, jewellery or shoes may become tighter
  • A feeling of heaviness, tightness, or stiffness
  • The skin may feel warmer

More severe symptoms include

  • Reddening of the skin
  • Change in shape of the area
  • Pitting of the skin
  • Pain
  • Difficulty moving
  • Fluid leaking from the skin

Early signs of lymphoedema in the head and neck area can include a feeling of pressure in the area or difficulty in swallowing, as well as swelling in your mouth.

Signs of lymphoedema in the groin or genital area may include a feeling of heaviness or aching before swelling develops.

If you have any of these symptoms see your doctor as soon as possible. Early treatment for lymphoedema can help to control swelling and stop it getting worse. Your doctor can also refer you to a lymphoedema specialist if you need it.


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First symptoms of lymphoedema

One of the first symptoms you may notice if you have lymphoedema is swelling in part of the body. Your clothes, shoes or jewellery may become tighter. There are other reasons why people develop swelling. But if you notice any swelling that does not go away contact your doctor.

Other symptoms may include heaviness, tightness or stiffness in the affected area. The area may also feel a little warmer and may ache.

Some people feel heaviness or aching before they develop any swelling.

At first, any swelling is usually soft and easy to push in with your fingers. If you press the swollen area, your fingers may leave a dent which takes time to go. The dents are called pitting.

Lymphoedema in the head or neck

Lymphoedema in the head or neck can also cause symptoms inside your mouth and throat. This may include swelling of your tongue and other parts of your mouth. Tell your doctor if you

  • Have any swelling or a feeling of fullness or pressure
  • Find it difficult to swallow
  • Have changes in your voice

Lymphoedema in the genital area

Lymphoedema in the genital area usually causes a feeling of heaviness. Men who have swelling in their scrotum or penis may have difficulty passing urine. Women may find that their genital area feels uncomfortable and tight.

Important points to remember

It usually takes some time for lymphoedema to develop after cancer treatment. Symptoms can take many months or a few years to appear. There is some evidence that if you are going to develop it, it usually develops within the first 3 years after treatment.  Some people have swelling immediately after surgery. This is not lymphoedema. It is part of the healing process and should get better within a few weeks.

Swelling is not always due to lymphoedema. If you have any swelling that doesn’t go away see your doctor.


What to do if you have symptoms

If you know that you are at risk of lymphoedema and you have any of the symptoms above, contact your doctor or specialist nurse. Early treatment for lymphoedema can help to control swelling and stop it getting worse. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to a lymphoedema specialist.

The Lymphoedema Support Network can tell you how to get lymphoedema care within the NHS. And the British Lymphology Society has a directory of lymphoedema services.


Severe lymphoedema symptoms

If you don’t have treatment your symptoms may change over time. The swollen area may become more swollen, harder, and more painful. You may also have

  • Pins and needles or tingling
  • A numb feeling
  • Reddening of your skin, which may become hard and stiff
  • More difficulty moving the affected area
  • Pain
  • Pitting – indents in your skin
  • A change in shape of your arm or leg
  • Skin infections
  • Watery fluid (lymph fluid) leaking from your skin

If you have any of these symptoms you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Treatment can reduce the swelling and make you more comfortable. You can read about treatments for lymphoedema in this section.

Lymphoedema can also affect you emotionally. There is information about coping with lymphoedema in this section.

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Updated: 1 April 2014