Decorative image

Diagnosing and tests

Your doctor will arrange for you to see a lymphoedema specialist if you have swelling and have had treatment to your lymph nodes.

Diagnosing

Speak to your doctor or specialist nurse if you have swelling that could be caused by cancer or its treatment. They can check whether you have lymphoedema.

Your doctor or nurse will examine you and ask if you have any other symptoms. They'll also go over your medical history. This is so they can rule out other things that can cause swelling, such as blood clots.

You’ll need to have some tests if they’re not sure what’s causing the swelling.

Your doctor will refer you to a specialist if they diagnose you with lymphoedema. The lymphoedema specialist may be a:

  • nurse
  • doctor
  • physiotherapist

Your local hospital might have a lymphoedema specialist. Or you might need to go to a specialist centre. In a few lymphoedema centres, you can refer yourself. The lymphoedema specialist will assess your swelling. They will work out which treatment you need.

The British Lymphology Society has a directory of lymphoedema services.

The Lymphoedema Support Network also gives information about how to find NHS services and gives support to people with lymphoedema.

Tests

You might have some other tests if your doctors are not sure what is causing your swelling. The tests can check for other possible causes, such as:

  • blood clots
  • cancer
  • heart disease
  • other medical conditions

Ultrasound scan

Ultrasound scans (USS) use sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of your body. They can help to show what is causing swelling, for example, scar tissue or cancer. They can also check the thickness of skin and tissue. When there is thickening, this is called fibrosis.

You might also have a Doppler ultrasound scan. This uses colour pictures to show the structures in the body. It can show up blood clots.

CT or MRI scan

CT scans use a series of x-rays to build up a picture of the inside of your body. MRI scans use magnetic fields.

Doctors don't normally use this type of scan to diagnose lymphoedema. They might use it to check that cancer is not causing your swelling.

Blood tests

You might also have blood tests to:

  • check your general health
  • check how well your liver and thyroid gland are working
  • measure the amount of protein in your blood
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

  • Cancer and its Management (7th Edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser

    Wiley - Blackwell, 2014

Information and help