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L-W-O Community

For those living with Primary, Secondary & Paediatric Lymphoedema Online & in the Community

What is Lymphoedema?

The Lymphatic System

There are two main types of lymphoedema:

Primary lymphoedema - that developed at birth or shortly after puberty and is caused by faulty genes or missing genes.



Secondary lymphoedema - caused by damage to the lymphatic system as a result of an infection, injury, trauma or cancer

The lymphatic system is made up of groups of lymph nodes throughout the body, which are connected by a network of lymph vessels.  It works in the following way:

  • acts as a one-way drainage system transporting fluid from body tissues into the blood circulation
  • contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which fight infection
  • gets rid of waste produced by cells

How the Lymphatic System Works

Lymph fluids flows through the lymph nodes, which act as a filter destroying or trapping anything harmful that the body doesn't need.  This includes bacteria, viruses, damaged cells or cancer cells.

Unlike blood, which flows throughout the body in a continual loop, lymph flows in only one direction - upward towards the neck - within its own system.  It flows in to the venous blood stream through the subclavian veins, which are located on either sides of the neck near the collarbones.

Lymph nodes contain white blood cells (lymphocytes), which attack and break down bacteria or other harmful cells.  Waste products and the destroyed bacteria are then carried in the lymph fluid into the bloodstream and are disposed of with other body waste.

Sometimes, the lymph nodes trap bacteria or viruses that they can't destroy immediately.  The lymph nodes then swell and become tender and sore to touch.  This is usually the sign of infection that may need treatment with antibiotics.  Sometimes, cancer cells spread into the lymph nodes from a cancer in another part of the body.  It is also possible for a cancer to start in the lymph nodes themselves (lymphomas). If this happens, the lymph nodes become swollen but are usually painless. 

Video from You Tube​

This video is one of the best I have seen for showing how the lymph system works.


Lymph Fluid

This is the liquid that flows through the lymph vessels and the lymph nodes.  It forms when excess liquid, from the fluid that surrounds all our body tissues, drains into small lymph vessels.

Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, but mainly in the neck, armpits, groin and tummy (abdomen).  Made of Lymphocytes, connected to a system of vessels.  These vessels are like veins except that instead of blood they carry lymph fluid.  Lymph fluid contains waste products and immune cells.

They are made of tissue and contain special cells that help fight infection and disease such as cancer.  Lymph nodes get bigger when they fight infection.

Lymph nodes vary in size; some are as small as a pinhead and others are about the size of a baked bean. 

The number of lymph nodes in the body varies from person to person.  There are 600 to 700 lymph nodes in the human body that filter the lymph before it returns to the circulatory system.  Different parts of the body have different numbers of nodes; for example, there are about 15-30 small nodes in the armpit.

There are different causes of swollen lymph nodes, but if you develop a painless swollen lymph node it is important to have it checked by your GP. The areas highlighted in green show the lymphatic system.


Lymph Vessels

  • Acts as a one-way drainage system, transporting fluids from the body tissue into the blood circulation
  • Contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which fights infection
  • Removes waste products


We are often asked by our members what certain medical terms mean when the are written in reports, while I am no expert, I have tried to simplify the meanings:

  • hypoplasia of lymphatic vessels - a reduced number of lymphatic vessels
  • hyperplasia of lymphatic vessels - vessels that are too large to be functional
  • aplasia - absence of some part of the lymphatic system
  • congenital - presents from birth
  • praecox - develops at the onset of puberty
  • tarda - develops in adulthood or doesn't become apparent until later in life


How does Lymphoedema Occur

If, for whatever reason the lymphatic system is not working correctly, or the vessels are not draining adequately, the fluid in the tissues builds up (as when a river is dammed and flooding occurs).  Swelling occurs when the amount of fluid in an area, is greater than the capacity of the lymphatic system to transport it away.  Lymphoedema can, therefore, be defined as 'an abnormal accumulation of protein rich fluid in the tissues'. 

Keeping it simple

In simple terms the lymphatic's form part of your immune system, helping to deal with infection at a local level but just as importantly they are responsible for cleansing  your tissues and maintaining a balance of fluids in your body.

It can be likened to a waste disposal system, taking tissue fluid, bacteria, proteins and waste products away from the tissues around skin, fat, muscle and bone.

Once inside the lymphatic vessels (which are barely visible just under the surface of the skin) the tissue fluid becomes known as 'lymph' and it is then transported in one direction by increasingly larger and deeper lymphatic vessels.

Movement of lymph depends on muscle movement (exercise) and the contraction of the vessels themselves.  Gentle massage known as Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) and deep breathing can also help to move the lymph more effectively.

At some point in its journey, lymph will pass through a lymph node.  Clusters of these nodes are found in the neck, armpits and groins.  It is here that the lymph is filtered and cleansed, so that the waste matter and harmful cells can be identified and removed by the body's defence system.

Having passed through these nodes, lymph finally drains back into the large veins of the body at a point just behind the collarbone, on each side of the neck.  From here it goes back to the heart and is eventually removed from the body as urine through the kidneys. 



Another subject that has also came up in members group is 'cording'. 

Again, I do not have the knowledge or confidence to talk about this subject.  Karen Friett of LSN pointed us towards this link;

Always contact your own health care professional.

Lymphoedema MLD Therapists

Looking for Manual Lymph Drainage therapist UK:

Dr Vodder School (International) looking for a Therapist, Clinic Wellness Therapist, Garment Fitter or Esthetician


Please make sure you read the footnote at the bottom of the page.

 Page last updated 03/04/2021