What is lymphedema?
This is a chronic swelling of an arm or leg due to fluid build-up. The lymph system takes fluid from the tissues and returns it to the blood. When this system is not working well or when lymph nodes are removed, the fluid can not always drain efficiently and may build up. Lymphedema may be caused by a birth defect, trauma, surgery, or radiation. The arm or leg may also ache or have a heavy feeling.
If I have lymph nodes removed will I get lymphedema?
No, having lymph nodes removed does not always result in lymphedma. For most people, the rest of the lymph vessels will carry fluid to healthy pathways which drain the fluid from the arm or leg. When the amount of fluid in the arm or leg is too much for the drainage system, then swelling occurs.
Is there a cure?
No. The swelling can be reduced and controlled with treatment, but not cured. It helps if treatment is started early. Success depends on how severe it is, your response to treatment, and how well you follow your treatment plan. You will be taught to take care of your arm or leg to avoid sending even more fluid into a full system. Because lymphedema can start or worsen at any time, even years after surgery or radiation, it is vital to watch for swelling and other changes in your arm or leg.
What can I do to reduce the risk of getting lymphedema?
These simple steps will help avoid lymphedema or keep it stable.
- Prevent infection. Clean, protect, and watch minor cuts on your swollen arm or leg. Call your doctor if you notice swelling, pain, redness, increased warmth, or fever.
- Avoid insect bites, animal scratches, cuts, or punctures of the skin. Be careful when cutting your nails. After cleaning cuts, bites, or scratches apply an antiseptic.
- Wear long oven mitts to avoid burns.
- Use lotion to prevent cracked skin where germs can enter.
- Dry the area between fingers and toes after washing to prevent infection such as athlete’s foot.
- Avoid hot showers, baths, and saunas since heat causes more fluid to form. Also, protect your arm or leg from sunburn.
- Pad bra straps to prevent indents. Wear loose clothes and jewelry. Wear shoulder bags on the good arm.
- Use electric razors instead of blades which can cut you.
- Do not have blood pressures taken or blood drawn from an arm swollen with lymphedema.
- Avoid lifting heavy objects with the swollen arm.
- Try not to stand for long periods of time. Walk or sit with your legs up when you can.
- Routine gentle exercise helps keep fluid moving. Walking and swimming are very helpful.
What is the treatment for lymphedema?
You and your doctor will form a plan that may include:
- Using bandages or other types of compression to soften and reduce swelling.
- Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), and other forms of gentle massage aimed at moving the fluid out of the arm or leg.
- Therapeutic exercise to improve flow of lymphatic fluid.
- Provision of a compression sleeve or stocking to maintain reduction in edema.
- Training in self management of edema.
Keep up with good skin care, massage, exercise, and wearing a sleeve or bandage to keep your arm or leg healthy.
When to call the doctor
- Pain in the leg or arm that gets worse
- Any open sores or areas that are draining
- Rapid increase in swelling
- Redness on the arm or leg
- Chills or fever
Where can I find help?
The stress of having lymphedema can be great. It is a life-long disease that can progress and requires constant management.
If you have questions or concerns, please call the clinic where you were seen.
UW Health Peripheral Vascular Clinic (608) 263-8915
Or ask to speak to a therapist that has special training in the treatment of lymphedema.
UW Health Occupational Therapy (608) 263-8060 or (608) 265-1221
Toll free: 1-800-323-8942
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 11/11/2011
Copyright © 11/11/2011 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#5353
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