5 things every GP should know about lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a chronic and permanent swelling which can affect any area of the body, most commonly affecting the limbs. It can impact on a person’s body image, self-esteem and cause not only physical, but emotional distress as well.
The list below is by no means a definitive or finite description of lymphoedema and is to be used as a guide only.

1 Causes

  • Primary – Hereditary, Congenital
  • Secondary – Many Cancers and their treatments, Venous disease, Immobility, Injury, Filariasis

2 Treatment

  • Skin care – daily inspection,washing and moisturizing of skin.
  • Exercise and maintenance of mobility.
  • Compression garments / multi-layer lymphoedema bandage.
  • Simple / Manual Lymphatic Drainage
  • Referral to specialist clinic

3 Complications

  • Cellulitis
  • Lymphorrhoea
  • Skin changes
  • Skin folds
  • Social/Psychological impact – lowered self-esteem, difficulties at work, finding clothes etc

4 Risk Factors

  • Lymph node removal: irradiation increases the risk
  • Venepuncture or blood pressure on at risk or oedematous limb
  • Wounds

5 Medication

  • NONE – condition requires self management and specialist support
  • Diuretics only if patient has cardiac history
  • Antibiotics as per Consensus Document for Cellulitis
  • Pain control – need to identify cause of pain

This was first published by the by the British Lympholgy Society (BLS). There is a free BMJ learning module on lymphoedema available to healthcare professionals.


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