What causes lymphoedema?

Our lymphatic system is connected to our cardiovascular system and fulfils functions for our organism that are just as important as the cardiovascular system itself. It plays a decisive role as part of our immune system. As long as we are healthy, there are hardly any reasons for thinking about the lymphatic system. We only become aware of it when it is impaired – in the case of lymphoedema, for example.

What, exactly, is it? Lymphoedema occurs when the lymph fluid cannot flow towards the heart properly and accumulates in the tissues. You can compare this with a sort of traffic jam. The arms and legs swell up and oedema forms, i.e. chronic swelling.

However, with the right treatment, it is possible to lead an everyday life that is as normal as possible. Because one thing is for sure: there are ways of keeping lymphoedema constant and enjoying life all the same.

The body's "hazardous waste disposal" service

The lymphatic system can be compared with “hazardous waste disposal”, because it transports waste products out of the body. These include, for example, proteins, metabolic breakdown products, inflammatory products or fat from the abdominal cavity. The lymphatic system runs alongside the blood vessels and covers our entire body like a net.

Every day it transports up to four litres of purified lymph back into the blood circulation. Lymphoedema can develop if lymphatic drainage is interrupted or impaired. There are so many different treatment options available today that you can lead an almost perfectly normal life, even with lymphoedema.


There are two forms of lymphoedema:

Primary lymphoedema:
Primary lymphoedema is congenital. It is usually caused by lymph channels or lymph nodes that have not been properly formed.
Secondary lymphoedema:
Secondary lymphoedema describes oedema that develops during a patient’s lifetime and is not congenital. The causes of this can be operations, infections or injuries, for example.

Signs and symptoms

The so-called Stemmer's sign is a reliable diagnostic sign to recognise lymphoedema. Try to pinch the skin at the base of your toe. If this is difficult, or even impossible, we speak of a "positive Stemmer's sign".

This is a sign of lymphoedema. Furthermore, deeper natural skin folds over the joints, swelling over the backs of the hand and feet and taut skin indicate lymphoedema.

Stage 0:

The lymph vessels are already damaged, but there is not yet any visible swelling.
Stage 1:Swelling develops over the course of the day, but it disappears partially or completely when you elevate the limb. If you push down on the tissues with your finger, a pit forms that persists for some time.
Stage 2:The swelling persists, even if you take longer rests. The skin is hard and elevating the limb no longer helps. It is difficult or even impossible to make pits in the skin.
Stage 3:This is marked by swelling and skin changes (for example, in the form of small blisters that leak lymph fluid). Another form of this swelling is called elephantiasis.

But in all cases, it is advisable to consult a doctor at an early stage (already at stage one). He can recommend suitable treatment and make sure that the oedema does not develop further, but is reduced or at least stays constant. This way you can prevent oedema progressing to stage 3.

Lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. Over 70,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.*

On average, 20 to 30% of patients are affected by breast cancer-related lymphoedema following removal of the axillary lymph nodes and adjuvant radiotherapy.**

Risk factors

Patients with cancer often have to have radiotherapy of their lymph nodes or the nodes are removed altogether. Naturally, this influences the whole lymphatic system, so oedema can develop. Other factors such as age or simply the fact that one is a woman can favour the onset of lymphoedema.

In many cases, lymphoedema also develops from a previous venous disorder combined with too little physical exercise. There are many causes, but the good news at this point is: there are efficient treatment options available to give lymph patients their quality of life back.


Do you have lymphoedema? Pay attention to the small things in everyday life. These will all make a contribution to keeping your oedema in check. For instance, wear comfortable clothes that do not constrict you. Clean and care for your skin carefully and only use pH neutral substances. At home, protect yourself against injuries to your nails and skin. Avoid stress and extreme cold, because both of these constrict the vessels. Activities that dilate the vessels such as sunbathing for a long time, visiting the sauna or having a hot bath are not recommended either. Also important: while manual lymphatic drainage has a positive effect on the lymph system, you should avoid kneading massages. These could over-stress the affected part of your body. And last but not least: wear compression garments whenever you exercise.

Living with Lymphoedema – Education, Therapy, Quality of Life

Lymphoedema changes lives. For the patient the chronic disease is a constant companion in all aspects of life. But what is the best way of dealing with the disease symptoms? Which therapy is suitable? How can I live a normal life despite lymphoedema? The film “Living with Lymphoedema – Education, Therapy, Quality of Life“ from medi gives concrete answers as well as practical tips for everyday life.