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Home > Health Library > Lymphedema
Lymphedema is a collection of fluid that causes swelling (edema) in the arms and legs. Normally, lymph nodes filter fluid as it flows through them. If the lymph system isn't working as it should, fluid can build up in the affected arm or leg, and lymphedema can occur.
One cause of lymphedema is surgery to remove lymph nodes, usually during cancer treatment. Medicines such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex), radiation therapy, and injury to the lymph nodes can also cause it. This type is called secondary lymphedema.
Lymphedema can be present at birth or develop during puberty or adulthood. This type is called primary lymphedema. The cause isn't known.
Symptoms of lymphedema include feeling as though your clothes, rings, wristwatches, or bracelets are too tight. You may have a feeling of fullness in your arms or legs and less flexibility in your wrists, hands, and ankles.
Treatment focuses on draining lymph fluid, reducing swelling, and protecting your affected limb and skin from injury. For example, propping up your affected arm or leg can help ease the drainage of lymph fluid. Gentle exercise and wearing compression stockings or sleeves can help reduce swelling. And using sunscreen can help protect your skin.
Lymphedema may develop if you have lymph nodes removed or have radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment. The following tips may help you avoid lymphedema or keep it under control.
Whenever you can, rest a swollen arm or leg on a comfortable surface, above the level of your heart. Propping up the affected arm or leg can help ease the drainage of lymph fluid.
If you've had lymph nodes removed from under your arm:
If you've had lymph nodes removed from your groin:
Using muscles during exercise naturally helps lymph fluid to circulate, which can reduce swelling. But it also increases blood flow to the muscles being used. This can increase the amount of lymph fluid. It's important to properly bandage an affected limb before you exercise. Ask your doctor how to use a bandage for this purpose. And ask what exercises are right for you.
Ask your doctor to refer you. Many insurance companies won't pay for physical therapy without a doctor's referral.
Use sunscreen and insect repellent when outdoors. Ask your doctor how to handle any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries.
The bracelets are available from the National Lymphedema Network. They help people avoid treatments to their affected limbs that could make their condition worse. These include blood pressure readings, injections, or blood draws.
Changes in cabin pressure during flight can cause swelling or make it worse. A compression garment that doesn't fit right can also make swelling worse. So be sure your garment fits correctly.
Current as of:
November 29, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Sarah Marshall MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineDouglas A. Stewart MD - Medical Oncology
Current as of: November 29, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Douglas A. Stewart MD - Medical Oncology
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