Lymphatic sclerotherapy is a procedure used to treat lymphatic malformations (a collection of small cysts). A medicine is injected into the cysts, which irritates them, encouraging them to scar and shrink.
Lymphatic malformations, sometimes referred to as cystic hygromas, are a collection of small cysts. These are congenital, that is, they were present when your child was born. The cysts are filled with a clear fluid similar to the fluid in a blister. The cysts have no purpose and can cause problems. The walls of the cysts are quite thin and contain little blood vessels.
Occasionally the blood vessels break and cause a clot to form inside the cyst. This can lead to sudden swelling and bruising of the area. This can be painful and the appearance of the bruising can be upsetting. The cysts can also become infected.
Sclerotherapy is a way of trying to reduce the size of the cysts so that they are smaller and less troublesome. Sclerotherapy is carried out in the department of Radiology by a doctor (radiologist) who specialises in using imaging to carry out procedures.
Sclerotherapy is also used to treat malformations around the eye (orbital sclerotherapy) and other types of malformation (venous malformations) elsewhere.
What happens before the sclerotherapy?
You will already have received information about how to prepare your child for the procedure in your admission letter. You may need to come to Great Ormond Street Hospital before the sclerotherapy, so that your child can have a pre-admission assessment to check that they are well enough. This appointment is usually arranged for the day of the procedure and may involve taking blood samples, photographs and other tests.
On the day of the procedure, you will meet the radiologist. They will explain the procedure in more detail, discuss any questions you may have, and ask you to sign a consent form giving permission for your child to have the sclerotherapy.
If your child has any medical problems, please tell the doctors. An anaesthetist will visit to talk to you about your child’s anaesthetic.
What does the sclerotherapy involve?
Lymphatic sclerotherapy is almost always carried out while your child is under a general anaesthetic. It is very important that your child’s stomach is as empty as possible on the day of the procedure, as this reduces the risk of vomiting during and after the anaesthetic.
If someone vomits during an anaesthetic, there is a chance that the stomach contents could get into the lungs, damaging them. Your child’s nurse will explain exactly what time your child can last eat or drink before the procedure, but as a general rule, the following applies.
Food and milk:
Breast-fed babies – give them their last feed four hours before the procedure is scheduled,
Bottle-fed babies and children – give them their last milk feed, food or milk drink six hours before the procedure is scheduled.
All babies and children can have a drink of water or weak squash, but no fizzy drinks, until two hours before the procedure is scheduled, but no food or milk for six hours before.
Please follow these instructions carefully, otherwise your child’s procedure may be delayed or even cancelled.
Once your child is under general anaesthetic, the radiologist will check the lymphatic malformation using an ultrasound scan. Using the ultrasound scan as a guide, they will insert a small needle through the skin into the abnormal cysts. If possible, the radiologist will use the needle to drain off some of the fluid inside the cysts.
They will inject a very small amount of medicine through the needle, which irritates and inflames the malformation and causes swelling, but this goes down over the next few weeks. Finally, the radiologist removes the needle. No stitches or dressings are needed – you will only be able to see a few pinpricks in the skin.
Are there any risks?
Your child will be having sclerotherapy under general anaesthetic. Every anaesthetic carries a risk, but this is extremely small.
Sclerotherapy causes irritation and swelling, so the area treated will look a little worse than usual after the procedure. This is usually a good sign as it shows the medicine is working. The area may feel bruised and sore for a few days, but your child will have pain relief.
There is a slightly higher risk of the malformation developing an infection after the procedure. Your child will need a short course of antibiotics if this happens.
As the medicine injected irritates the cysts, they are generally more prone to complications in the first week or two after the procedure. There is a slightly higher risk than usual of the cysts developing blood clots inside them. This causes sudden swelling and bruising, which may be uncomfortable.
Sclerotherapy works for most children but not all of them. Experience helps us understand which malformations are more likely to respond. If the doctors feel that the first sclerotherapy treatment has not been very successful, they might suggest surgery, perhaps in combination with further sclerotherapy.
Are there any alternatives to lymphatic sclerotherapy?
Sclerotherapy seems to be the best treatment option of lymphatic malformations, as it carries lower risks than open surgery. It does not cause any visible scarring and the malformation does not appear to grow back after treatment.
However, as every child with a lymphatic malformation is different, sclerotherapy may not be the best option. Sometimes a combination of sclerotherapy and surgery might be suggested. Your doctor will explain the options for treatment suitable for your child.
What happens afterwards?
Your child will return to the ward after they have recovered from the anaesthetic. Some children feel sick and vomit after a general anaesthetic. Your child may have a headache or sore throat or feel dizzy, but these side effects are usually shortlived and not severe. Your child can start eating and drinking as normal once they feel like it.
The lymphatic malformation will almost certainly look worse after the procedure, as the bruising and swelling last for a few days. It can be helpful to show your child some before and after photographs, such as in our lymphatic sclerotherapy information sheet, so that they are prepared.
The treated area will feel uncomfortable afterwards, but children’s pain relief medicine is usually enough to deal with any pain.
You will be able to go home once the doctors are happy that your child is recovering well. We will give you information about looking after your child following lymphatic sclerotherapy.
The swelling should start to go down after a week or two. They should be able to go back to school after a few days, but should avoid games and PE for at least two weeks.
The doctors will tell you if your child needs further sclerotherapy procedures and if so, when. Your child might need to have a routine outpatient appointment a few weeks afterward before this decision is made. We will send you a letter with the planned date of the outpatient appointment or next treatment session.
Your child might need several sclerotherapy procedures to reduce the malformation. As sclerotherapy causes swelling and discomfort, it is safer to carry out several smaller treatments limiting the effects each time. Sclerotherapy will not cure the malformation, but it should shrink it significantly. Occasionally, children need to have further sclerotherapy as they get older and some may need surgery to tidy up any loose skin.
You should call the hospital if:
Your child is in a lot of pain and pain relief does not seem to help.
The treated area is unusually hot, red and painful and your child is generally unwell with a high temperature or not eating or drinking as usual.
Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: July 2012
Ref: 2012F1092 July 2012
Compiled by the Interventional Radiology team in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group.
This information does not constitute health or medical advice and will not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. If you have any questions, please ask your doctor. No liability can be taken as a result of using this information.