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Lymphedema

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Lymphedema

Condition Basics

Lymphedema is a collection of fluid called lymph in the tissues of the body. Normally, this fluid flows through the lymph system. If that system isn't working as it should, fluid can build up in the affected area and cause lymphedema. This happens most often in an arm or leg.

What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema may be caused by cancer treatment, like surgery or radiation. Or it may be caused by cancer itself, such as when tumors press against lymph nodes or affect the lymph system. Other causes of lymphedema include infections, inflammatory conditions, obesity, and injury to the lymph nodes. Sometimes the cause isn't known.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of lymphedema include feeling as though your clothes, rings, wristwatches, or bracelets are too tight. You may have a feeling of fullness in your arms or legs and less flexibility in your wrists, hands, and ankles.

How is lymphedema treated?

Treatment focuses on managing lymphedema. This may include wearing compression garments to help reduce swelling and special massage to help drain lymph fluid from the area. It also includes self-care, such as watching closely for changes, protecting yourself from injury, and maintaining a healthy weight. Surgery is an option in some cases.

How can you care for yourself?

Lymphedema may develop if you have lymph nodes removed or have radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment. The following tips may help if you have lymphedema or are at risk for lymphedema.

  • Keep a close watch on the area of your body where you had treatment.

    Your doctor may have you regularly measure the affected area of your body. You'll be asked to report on any changes you notice, such as a change in size, color, or feeling.

  • Prop up the affected limb.

    Whenever you can, rest a swollen arm or leg on a comfortable surface, above the level of your heart. Propping up the affected arm or leg can help ease the drainage of lymph fluid.

    • Don't put pressure on your armpit or groin area.
    • Don't hold a limb up without support for very long. It can increase swelling.
  • Protect the area.

    If you've had treatment in your underarm area:

    • Try to avoid having blood drawn from that arm.
    • Try to avoid having a blood pressure cuff placed on that arm. If you're in the hospital, make sure you notify your nurse and other hospital staff of your condition.
    • Wear gloves when you garden or do other activities that can lead to cuts on your fingers or hands.
    • Use an electric shaver if you shave your armpits.

    If you've had treatment in your groin area:

    • Wear comfortable shoes that fit properly and support your feet.
    • Avoid wearing any tight clothing on your lower body. (This does not include compression garments.)
  • Exercise and maintain a healthy weight.

    Your doctor will give you some exercises to do. Exercise helps to circulate lymph fluid. But it can also cause swelling. So when exercising, be sure to wear any compression garments or bandages recommended by your doctor.

    Staying at a healthy weight can help. If you need to lose weight, talk with your doctor.

  • See a health professional who specializes in lymphedema.

    Ask your doctor to refer you. Those trained in lymphedema management include physical therapists and occupational therapists.

  • Protect your skin.
    • Bathe or shower as needed with warm, not hot, water. Use a mild soap, preferably one that has moisturizers. Or use a moisturizer separately.
    • Use sunscreen and insect repellent when outdoors. Ask your doctor how to handle any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries.
  • Wear compression bandages or garments.

    Your doctor may recommend that you wear compression bandages or garments, such as sleeves or stockings. Compression garments need to fit properly. Follow your doctor's instructions about when to wear them, including when you travel by air.

Related Information

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Current as of: December 13, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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