What is lymphedema?

Managing lymphedema: Overview

Lymphedema may develop if you have lymph nodes removed or have radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment.

  • Watch for symptoms, such as feeling that your clothes or rings are too tight.
  • Keep lymph fluid moving. This may include propping up your limb when you can and using massage and exercise, if your doctor recommends it.
  • Learn how to protect and care for your affected arm or leg. This can include using gloves or always wearing shoes and knowing how to treat injuries like cuts or bug bites.

Lymphedema

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 a leg.

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 include infections, inflammatory conditions, obesity, and injury to the lymph nodes. Sometimes the cause isn't known.

Lymphedema causes the blood vessels and lymph channels in an area of the body to increase in size and number. It also reduces oxygen delivery to the tissues, interferes with wound healing, and can lead to infection. Lymphedema is often a permanent condition and may not completely go away, even with treatment. The amount of swelling may fluctuate at different times.

Lymphedema is often managed with compression therapy, special massage, and self-care. Surgery is an option in some cases.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

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.

Managing lymphedema after treatment for breast cancer: Overview

Lymphedema is a buildup of fluid in the soft tissues of the body. It can happen after lymph nodes are removed during surgery or after radiation therapy. Lymph fluid usually moves freely throughout your body. But when lymph nodes have been removed, or the flow of lymph fluid is blocked by scar tissue from radiation, fluid can build up. This can cause swelling in your arm and nearby areas.

There isn't any known way to prevent lymphedema. But whether you are at risk of getting lymphedema or already have symptoms, there are things you can do that will help. This includes managing any swelling you may have.

Lymphedema can happen soon after breast cancer treatment. Or it may happen many years later. It may affect only part of your arm or hand. In some cases, it affects all of the arm. Make sure to follow these precautions even after you finish treatment. Do not ignore tightness or swelling in or around your arm or hand. You are less likely to have long-term problems if you get these symptoms treated right away.

How is lymphedema diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you and ask you questions about your medical history. You may be diagnosed with lymphedema if you have swelling in your body, such as in your arm, that doesn't have other known causes.

How can you care for yourself when you have lymphedema?

  • Wear a compression stocking or sleeve as your doctor suggests. It can help keep fluid from pooling in an arm or leg. Wear it during air travel.
  • Prop up the swollen arm or leg on a pillow anytime you sit or lie down. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
  • Avoid crossing your legs if they are swollen.
  • Get some exercise on most days of the week. Increase the intensity of exercise slowly. Wear your compression stocking or sleeve during exercise.
  • See a health professional, such as a physical therapist, who has been trained in lymphedema management. They can teach you how to do self-massage to help fluid move around. You also can learn what activities are best for you.
  • If you have had treatment to your underarm area:
    • When possible, avoid having blood drawn from that arm.
    • When possible, avoid having a blood pressure cuff placed on that arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure your nurse and other hospital staff know of your condition.
  • Avoid skin infection or injury.
    • Wear gloves when gardening or doing other activities that may lead to cuts on your fingers or hands.
    • Do not walk barefoot. Wear comfortable and supportive shoes that fit properly.
    • Use sunscreen and insect repellent when outdoors to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
    • Ask your doctor how to treat any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries that may occur.

What is lymphedema?

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.

Keeping lymph fluid moving when you have lymphedema

If you have lymphedema, it's important to try to keep the lymph fluid moving so that it doesn't collect in your arm or leg.

  • Prop up your arm or leg.

    When you sit or lie down, try to keep your limb above the level of your heart by propping it on a pillow.

  • Try to limit the use of a blood pressure cuff on your affected arm.

    If you're in the hospital, tell your nurse and other hospital staff about your condition.

  • If your leg is affected, try not to cross your legs when you sit.

    Don't sit in one position longer than 30 minutes.

  • Wear loose clothing around the affected limb.

    For example, don't wear shirts with elastic cuffs. And don't wear any tight clothing. (This does not include compression garments.)

  • Follow your doctor's advice about exercise.

    Exercises can help drain the lymph fluid. Your doctor may recommend wearing a compression bandage or garment, especially while exercising or doing activities that might increase swelling.

  • See a health professional, such as a physical therapist, trained to manage lymphedema.

    Health professionals who specialize in lymphedema management can teach you special massages to help move fluid out of your arm or leg. You also can learn what activities are best for you.

Managing lymphedema after treatment for breast cancer: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms from lymphedema.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.