Patricia Griffin Kellicker, BSN
The lymph system helps your body fight illness. Lymph fluid travels throughout the body in lymph nodes and vessels. The fluid builds up if these nodes or vessels are blocked, damaged, or missing. Fluid build-up in the arms or legs is called lymphedema. There are two types of lymphedema:
Lymphedema can be caused by a variety of factors:
These factors increase your chance of developing lymphedema. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
Symptoms of lymphedema include:
Cases of lymphedema can vary from mild to severe. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Images may need to be taken of your body structures. This can be done with:
Other tests may include:
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Options include the following:
Your doctor or physical therapist may show you exercises to drain fluid out of your arm or leg.
may also be used to help fluid drain. Sometimes, external pumps are used to help drain the fluid build-up.
Compression stockings, sleeves, or
are often used to direct fluid away from your affected arm or leg. You may be shown how to apply a compression device.
Areas of lymphedema are at risk for infection. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to prevent or treat infection. If the condition is painful, your doctor may suggest or prescribe a pain reliever.
Diuretics (water pills) may be useful for short periods of time for swelling in some causes of lymphedema.
In severe cases, surgery to remove extra tissue from your arm or leg may be considered.
If you are at risk for developing lymphedema, there are measures you can take to help reduce your chance of getting the condition.
If you are at risk, you can prevent swelling and fluid if you:
You can prevent side effects if you:
National Cancer Institute
National Lymphedema Network
Canadian Cancer Society
Lymphedema Association of Quebec
Lymphedema. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/lymphedema/patient. Updated March 6, 2013. Accessed May 16, 2013.
Lymphedema. Society for Vascular Surgery website. Available at:
http://www.vascularweb.org/vascularhealth/Pages/lymphedema.aspx. Updated December 2011. Accessed May 16, 2013.
What is lymphedema? The National Lymphedema Network website. Available at:
http://www.lymphnet.org/lymphedemaFAQs/overview.htm. Accessed May 16, 2013.
1/22/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Torres Lacomba M, Yuste Sánchez MJ, Zapico Goñi A, et al. Effectiveness of early physiotherapy to prevent lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer: randomised, single blinded, clinical trial.
Last reviewed March 2014 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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