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Symptoms of lymphoedema

The most common symptom of lymphoedema is swelling. Some people also feel heaviness or aching. Symptoms can appear some time after cancer treatment.

What lymphoedema is

Lymph fluid is in all body tissues. It comes from the tiny blood vessels into the body tissues. Normally it drains back into the blood stream through channels called lymph vessels. These are part of the lymphatic system.

Lymph fluid can build up if any lymph drainage channels or lymph nodes are blocked or removed or damaged. This causes the swelling called lymphoedema.

First symptoms of lymphoedema

One of the first symptoms you might notice 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 doesn’t go away, contact your doctor.

Other symptoms can include heaviness, tightness or stiffness. You might feel this before they develop any swelling. The area may also feel a little warmer and may ache.

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

Lymphoedema in the head and 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 might have difficulty passing urine. Women might find that their genital area feels uncomfortable and tight.

What to do if you have symptoms

Contact your doctor or specialist nurse if you know you’re at risk of lymphoedema and you have any of the symptoms above. Early treatment 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.

The British Lymphology Society has a directory of lymphoedema services.

Severe lymphoedema symptoms

Without treatment, your symptoms might change over time. The swollen area could become more swollen, harder, and more painful.

You might 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
See your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms. Treatment can reduce the swelling and make you more comfortable.

Important points

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 lymphoedema, it usually happens within the first 3 years after treatment.  

Some people have swelling immediately after surgery. This is not lymphoedema. It’s part of the healing process and should get better within a few weeks.

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

Support for you

Lymphoedema can also affect you emotionally. You can get help and support with this, so ask for help from your team if you need it.

Last reviewed: 
01 Apr 2014
  • Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema: an international consensus

    Lymphoedema Framework, 2006

  • Cancer and its Management (6th Edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser

    Wiley - Blackwell, 2010

  • Guidelines for the diagnosis, assessment and management of lymphoedema

    Clinical Resource Efficiency Support Team (CREST), 2008

  • Prevalence of secondary lymphedema in patients with head and neck cancer

    J Deng and others

    Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 2012

    Volume 43, Issue 2

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