Background: Lymphoedema/chronic oedema is an important cause of morbidity in the population, but little is known of its epidemiology and impact on patients or health services.
Aim: To determine the magnitude of the problem of chronic oedema in the community, and the likely impact of oedema on use of health resources, employment and patient's quality of life.
Design: Questionnaire-based survey.
Methods: Health professionals from dedicated lymphoedema services, specific out-patient clinics, hospital wards and community services (GP clinics and district nurses) were contacted to provide information on patients from within South West London Community Trust. A subset of the identified patients was interviewed.
Results: Within the catchment area, 823 patients had chronic oedema (crude prevalence 1.33/1000). Prevalence increased with age (5.4/1000 in those aged > 65 years), and was higher in women (2.15 vs. 0.47/1000). Only 529 (64%) were receiving treatment, despite two specialist lymphoedema clinics within the catchment area. Of 228 patients interviewed, 78% had oedema lasting > 1 year. Over the previous year, 64/218 (29%) had had an acute infection in the affected area, 17/64 (27%) being admitted for intravenous antibiotics. Mean length of stay for this condition was 12 days, estimated mean cost pound 2300. Oedema caused time off work in > 80%, and affected employment status in 9%. Quality of life was below normal, with 50% experiencing pain or discomfort from their oedema.
Discussion: Chronic oedema is a common problem in the community with at least 100 000 patients suffering in the UK alone, a problem poorly recognized by health professionals. Lymphoedema arising for reasons other than cancer treatment is much more prevalent than generally perceived, yet resources for treatment are mainly cancer-based, leading to inequalities of care.