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The lymphatic system

contains fluid, vessels, tissue, and organs. This system removes and carries fluid throughout the body. It also helps the body fight infection. Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph fluid in fat tissue under your skin. The buildup causes the area to swell. Lymphedema can happen any time that lymphatic vessels are blocked or damaged. Damage to lymphatic vessels may be caused by surgery, infection, injury, cancer, radiation, or scar tissue. .

Common signs and symptoms include the following:

Signs and symptoms may happen where lymph nodes were removed, or in the arm, leg, chest, or underarm.

  • Swelling or itching
  • Pain, burning, or aching
  • Tight, hard, or red skin
  • Hair loss
  • Heaviness or fullness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Stiffness

Contact your healthcare provider or lymphedema specialist if:

  • You have a fever or chills.
  • You have an open area of skin that looks red or swollen, or drains pus.
  • Your symptoms, such as swelling or pain, get worse.
  • Your arms or legs feel heavy, or you cannot move them.
  • Your skin becomes hard, thick, or rough.
  • You have a skin wound that will not heal.
  • Your shoes, clothes, or jewelry feel tighter.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Treatment for lymphedema

can relieve symptoms and prevent lymphedema from getting worse. You may need therapeutic massage, physical therapy, or compression devices to help decrease swelling and pain. Surgery may be needed if other treatments do not work.


  • Elevate your arm or leg above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop your arm or leg on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated comfortably.
  • Wear compression socks, sleeves, or bandages as directed. Compression devices must be fitted by a healthcare provider. Compression devices may need to be replaced every 3 to 6 months.
  • Exercise can help you maintain or regain function of your arm or leg. Ask your healthcare provider what type of exercise to do and how often to do it. Start slow, take breaks, and gradually do more each day. Do not do vigorous, repeated exercises. Watch for changes in your arm or leg during exercise. Stop and rest if you have swelling, increased pain, or heaviness. Elevate your arm or leg above the level of your heart.
  • Change your position often to help move lymphatic fluid through your body. Do not sit or stand in one position for more than 30 minutes. Do not cross your legs when you sit. These actions can cause lymphatic fluid to buildup.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider what you should weigh. Weight loss may improve your symptoms. If you need to lose weight, your healthcare provider can help you create a weight loss program.

Prevent infection with proper skin care:

A skin infection can make lymphedema worse. Do the following to decrease your risk for a skin infection in your arm or leg with lymphedema:

  • Wash your skin gently and dry it well. Use a mild soap to wash your skin. Gently pat your skin dry after you bathe. Apply a mild cream or lotion to moisturize your skin and prevent dryness or cracking. Keep your feet clean and dry.
  • Protect your skin from injury. Wear gloves when you garden and wash dishes. Cut your nails straight across to prevent injury to your fingers and toes. Use sunscreen and insect repellant to avoid burns and punctures. Wear slippers in the house. Wear shoes when you go outside.
  • Check your skin every day for signs of infection. Signs of infection include redness, swelling, increased heat, or pus. You may also have a fever or chills.
  • Care for cuts, scratches or burns. Apply antibiotic ointment to cuts and other small breaks in the skin. Apply a cold pack or cold water to a burn for 15 minutes. Then wash it with soap and water. Cover scratches, cuts, or burns with a clean, dry gauze or bandage as directed. Keep the area clean and dry.
  • Tell healthcare providers that you have lymphedema. Tell them not to do, IVs, blood draws, and blood pressure readings in the arm or leg with lymphedema. If there is lymphedema in both arms, ask them to take your blood pressure on your leg. Do not allow flu shots or vaccinations in your arm with lymphedema.

Follow up with your healthcare provider or lymphedema specialist as directed:

You will need regular visits so healthcare providers can examine the affected areas. You may also be referred to a clinic that specializes in lymphedema treatment. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.