What is Lymphoedema?
The lymphatic system is a network of vessels similar to the blood
circulatory system, which transports a straw coloured fluid called lymph
from areas around our cells in the tissues (extracellular spaces) back
into the blood circulation.
Lymph contains excess proteins, water and waste products, as well as
fats near the digestive system. It is called an "open-ended" system
unlike the blood system which is a continual loop.
The smallest lymph vessels called initial lymph capillaries are just under
the skin and pick up excess fluid and particles rather like a vacuum
cleaner. This is then pushed into larger vessels called collectors deeper
in the tissues.
The movement of this fluid is dependant largely on pressure changes
from movement and muscles contracting, and also by the small amount
of muscle in the vessel which squeezes the fluid along one way valve
channels. The vessels slowly become larger in the chest cavity and
eventually drain into the veins near the heart.
Along the way, cell debris and bacteria are filtered through lymph nodes,
and so as well as helping to maintain fluid balance and transport fatty acids, the lymphatic system also has an important role in immunodefense.
The lymph nodes or glands are found in clumps throughout our body (e.g. in our armpits, groins and neck). The total number of lymph nodes in our bodies varies between individuals, and can even differ from one side of our body to the other. For example, there could be any number between 20-60 nodes in the armpit alone.
In normal situations, swelling can occur after an injury (e.g. a sprained ankle), from surgery or in an area of inflammation (e.g. an infected cut). Over a matter of several days to a few months, the body has the capacity to "pick up" this extra fluid as part of the normal healing process. This transient swelling is not lymphoedema, and so early swelling, for example after breast surgery should not be assumed to be lymphoedema.
Professionals trained in lymphoedema management are the best people to make this assessment.