How to Prevent and Manage Lymphedema

Following radiation treatment or surgery to remove lymph nodes (lymphadenectomy), patients can develop lymphedema, a condition that involves abnormal swelling, usually in the arms or the legs, due to an accumulation of lymphatic fluids. This fluid buildup is caused by blockage or removal of lymph nodes or lymph vessels.

Lymphedema is often associated with breast cancer patients, but can result from treatment of other cancers, such as melanoma, prostate, or advanced gynecological cancer.

In addition to discomfort, lymphedema can also lead to infection, as the fluid buildup can increase bacteria growth. Pay attention to signs of infection, including pain, heat, swelling, rash blistering, redness, and fever. If you notice these symptoms, call your physician immediately.

Below are some ways to prevent infection and manage lymphedema symptoms that arise:

To prevent potential infection, try to exercise when possible.
To prevent potential infection, try to exercise when possible.

Infection prevention techniques:

  • Be sure to keep your skin clean and moisturize daily.
  • Avoid injury (cuts, sunburns, and insect bites) and wear gloves for gardening or cleaning.
  • Avoid injections and blood pressure readings in the surgery site, or in the area that is affected by lymphedema.

Lymphedema management tips:

  • Do not lift heavy objects with an arm affected by lymphedema and avoid continuous circular motions, like mixing.
  • Elevate the limb above heart level as often as possible.
  • Avoid extreme temperature changes when bathing or alternating between ice packs and heating pads.
  • Avoid constriction. Wear loose clothing, do not wear tight jewelry or elastic bands around affected fingers or arms.

If lymphedema is caused by infection, a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. If not, mechanical compression sleeves and stockings can prevent further accumulation of fluid in the affected limb. A trained therapist can also introduce manual lymphatic draining, if necessary.

For more information on lymphedema prevention, management, and treatment visit Dana-Farber’s resources for coping with lymphedema.