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What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling that occurs when lymphatic fluid pools instead of moving through your body as it should. The swelling can happen anywhere, but is most common in your arm or leg. Tumors, radiation, infection, or surgery can all block the normal flow of lymphatic fluid. Without proper treatment and management, lymphedema can lead to numbness, itching, pain, and loss of ability to work and do daily tasks.

How is lymphedema diagnosed?

Your caregiver will examine areas of swelling and ask about your symptoms. Tell him if you have ever had cancer, radiation treatments, or surgery. Tell him what medicines you take. You may need the following:

  • An ultrasound may show areas in your body where lymphatic fluid has collected.
  • A lymphoscintigram, MRI, or CT scan may show a blockage in your lymphatic system. You may be given dye to help caregivers see any blocked areas better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is lymphedema treated?

Lymphedema is a long-term condition, and there is no cure. The goals of treatment are to relieve symptoms and prevent lymphedema from getting worse. You may need any of the following:

  • Manual lymphatic drainage is a gentle form of massage that helps your lymphatic system work properly. It is done by a specialist, who may also teach you how to perform the massage yourself.
  • Compression devices are sleeves, gloves, or boots that use pressure to help the flow of lymphatic fluid and prevent swelling.
  • Surgery may be an option if other treatments fail. Surgery may be done to remove tissue, drain fluid, or create a path for lymphatic fluid to flow.

How do I care for my skin and help prevent infection?

You must care for your skin, because lymphedema increases your risk for skin infections.

  • Wash your skin gently and dry it well. Apply a mild cream or lotion to moisturize your skin and prevent dryness and 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.
  • Look at your skin every day. Treat paper cuts and other small breaks in the skin with antibiotic ointment.
  • Tell caregivers that you have lymphedema. Remind them to avoid injections and blood pressure readings on the affected area.

How do I manage my symptoms and prevent lymphedema from getting worse?

  • Elevate your arm or leg as directed. Do not cross your legs. Do not sit in one position for more than 30 minutes.
  • Wear compression socks, sleeves, and other garments as directed. These garments must be fitted by a caregiver and replaced every 6 months.
  • Exercise can help you maintain or regain function of your arm or leg. Ask your caregiver what type of exercise to do and how often to do it. Start slowly, and do more as you get stronger.
  • Ask your caregiver if you need to lose weight. Obesity can make lymphedema worse, and weight loss may improve your symptoms.

When should I contact my caregiver?

  • 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 feels tighter.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek care immediately or call 911?

  • The affected area is red, warm, or painful.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.

© 2015 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.