Assessing lymphoedema

Your specialist nurse or physiotherapist will do a full assessment of your swelling (lymphoedema). This includes measuring the amount of swelling and looking at your skin.

The amount of swelling

If you have swelling in an arm or a leg, the specialist can compare the swollen limb with the unaffected one. They can assess how much swelling you have. 

The specialist can measure swelling of your limbs in different ways. The most common way is with a tape measure.

Starting with a point on your hand or foot, they make marks at regular intervals up your arms or legs. They measure around the limb (the circumference) at those intervals. They call these circumferential limb measurements. They can then compare the size of one limb with the other.

They will work out whether the swelling is:

  • mild
  • moderate
  • severe

It’s more difficult to assess lymphoedema in the head or neck, chest, breast or genital areas.

Your specialist might ask you to have photos taken. This way they can compare ‘before and after’ to see how well the treatment is working.

Other ways of measuring

There are other ways of measuring swelling.

Using an infrared beam (perometry)

The specialist measures the outline of the limb and then works out the volume of the area. This isn't widely available.

Using an electrical charge (bioimpedance)

The specialist finds out how resistant body tissue is and works out the amount of swelling. This is a newer way of measuring and it’s not available everywhere. It is accurate in measuring early lymphoedema.

Noticing changes

You will become an expert in the changes in size of the swollen area. It could change from day to day, depending on what you’re doing. So remember that one measure does not necessarily reflect whether treatment is working or not.

Talk to your specialist nurse or physiotherapist if you have any changes. It helps not to focus too much on single measurements.

Skin and tissue assessment

Your specialist will look out for and assess any changes in your skin. These could include:

  • dryness, your skin may be more flaky or feel tight
  • changes in colour, the area may be redder or paler than usual
  • how delicate, fragile or sensitive your skin is
  • warmth or coolness
  • signs of infection, such as redness or heat
  • thickening – your skin may become thicker (sometimes called fibrosis)
  • creases or folds in your skin may be more noticeable
  • pitting (when pressed the skin stays dented for a while) or dimpling
  • any leaking of fluid from the skin

During an assessment, the nurse or physiotherapist will also look for any problems with blood flow that might affect the treatment you can have.

Aching or pain

Some people who have lymphoedema have aching or pain in the swollen area. This might be because the area is inflamed or the skin is stretched. Sometimes you might have pain if you've overused your limb.

The specialist will ask whether you have any pain. They’ll also ask if anything makes it worse, such as moving around. The swollen limb’s joints and muscles can sometimes ache or feel painful if the limb is heavy or you haven’t been able to use it as usual.

Talk to your nurse or physiotherapist if you have pain.

Assessing your diet

We know from research that if you’re very overweight (obese), your risk of developing lymphoedema after breast cancer is higher.

Being overweight might also make lymphoedema more difficult to control. This could be because overweight people can find it more difficult to move around.

If you’re very overweight, your specialist might refer you to a dietitian to help you look at ways of losing weight.

Eating a healthy, well balanced diet also helps to reduce your risk of other health problems that can come from being overweight.

Moving and functioning

Lymphoedema can sometimes make it difficult to move around. You might need help to work out how to cope. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to an occupational therapist for advice on equipment that could help you.

Sometimes people start to walk or move differently when they have swelling. Over time, this can limit your range of movement.

A physiotherapist can help you keep as full a range of movements as possible. Then you can do normal, everyday things like reaching up to a cupboard.

Last reviewed: 
13 Aug 2019
  • Guidelines for the diagnosis, assessment and management of lymphoedema

    Clinical Resource Efficiency Support Team (CREST), 2008

  • Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema: an international consensus

    Lymphoedema Framework, 2006

  • Long term treatment related upper limb morbidity and quality of life after sentinel lymph node biopsy for stage I or II breast cancer

    JS Rietman and others

    European Journal of Surgical Oncology, 2006, Volume 32, Issue 2

  • 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

  • Ross and Wilson Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (11th Edition)

    A Waugh and A Grant

    Churchill and Livingstone, 2010

  • The Impact of L-Dex Measurements in Assessing Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema as Part of Routine Clinical Practice

    A Laidley  and others

    Frontiers of Oncology, 2016; 6: 192

Related links