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Lymphedema (PDQ®)

Treatment of Lymphedema

The goal of treatment is to control the swelling and other problems caused by lymphedema.

Damage to the lymph system cannot be repaired. Treatment is given to control the swelling caused by lymphedema and keep other problems from developing or getting worse. Physical (non-drug) therapies are the standard treatment. Treatment may be a combination of several of the physical methods. The goal of these treatments is to help patients continue with activities of daily living, to decrease pain, and to improve the ability to move and use the limb (arm or leg) with lymphedema. Drugs are not usually used for long-term treatment of lymphedema.

Treatment of lymphedema may include the following:

Pressure garments

Pressure garments are made of fabric that puts a controlled amount of pressure on different parts of the arm or leg to help move fluid and keep it from building up. Some patients may need to have these garments custom-made for a correct fit. Wearing a pressure garment during exercise may help prevent more swelling in an affected limb. It is important to use pressure garments during air travel, because lymphedema can become worse at high altitudes. Pressure garments are also called compression sleeves and lymphedema sleeves or stockings.

Exercise

Both light exercise and aerobic exercise (physical activity that causes the heart and lungs to work harder) help the lymph vessels move lymph out of the affected limb and decrease swelling.

  • Talk with a certified lymphedema therapist before beginning exercise.

    Patients who have lymphedema or who are at risk for lymphedema should talk with a certified lymphedema therapist before beginning an exercise routine. (See the Lymphology Association of North America Web site for a list of certified lymphedema therapists in the United States.)

  • Wear a pressure garment if lymphedema has developed.

    Patients who have lymphedema should wear a well-fitting pressure garment during all exercise that uses the affected limb or body part.

    When it is not known for sure if a woman has lymphedema, upper-body exercise without a garment may be more helpful than no exercise at all. Patients who do not have lymphedema do not need to wear a pressure garment during exercise.

  • Breast cancer survivors should begin with light upper-body exercise and increase it slowly.

    Some studies with breast cancer survivors show that upper-body exercise is safe in women who have lymphedema or who are at risk for lymphedema. Weight-lifting that is slowly increased may keep lymphedema from getting worse. Exercise should start at a very low level, increase slowly over time, and be overseen by the lymphedema therapist. If exercise is stopped for a week or longer, it should be started again at a low level and increased slowly.

    If symptoms (such as swelling or heaviness in the limb) change or increase for a week or longer, talk with the lymphedema therapist. It is likely that exercising at a low level and slowly increasing it again over time is better for the affected limb than stopping the exercise completely.

More studies are needed to find out if weight-lifting is safe for cancer survivors with lymphedema in the legs.

Bandages

Once the lymph fluid is moved out of a swollen limb, bandaging (wrapping) can help prevent the area from refilling with fluid. Bandages also increase the ability of the lymph vessels to move lymph along. Lymphedema that has not improved with other treatments is sometimes helped with bandaging.

Skin care

The goal of skin care is to prevent infection and to keep skin from drying and cracking. See skin care tips, in the Managing Lymphedema section.

Combined therapy

Combined physical therapy is a program of massage, bandaging, exercises, and skin care managed by a trained therapist. At the beginning of the program, the therapist gives many treatments over a short time to decrease most of the swelling in the limb with lymphedema. Then the patient continues the program at home to keep the swelling down. Combined therapy is also called complex decongestive therapy.

Compression device

Compression devices are pumps connected to a sleeve that wraps around the arm or leg and applies pressure on and off. The sleeve is inflated and deflated on a timed cycle. This pumping action may help move fluid through lymph vessels and veins and keep fluid from building up in the arm or leg. Compression devices may be helpful when added to combined therapy. The use of these devices should be supervised by a trained professional because too much pressure can damage lymph vessels near the surface of the skin.

Weight loss

In patients who are overweight, lymphedema related to breast cancer may improve with weight loss.

Laser therapy

Laser therapy may help decrease lymphedema swelling and skin hardness after a mastectomy. A hand-held, battery-powered device is used to aim low-level laser beams at the area with lymphedema.

Drug therapy

Lymphedema is not usually treated with drugs. Antibiotics may be used to treat and prevent infections. Other types of drugs, such as diuretics or anticoagulants (blood thinners), are usually not helpful and may make the lymphedema worse.

Surgery

Lymphedema caused by cancer is rarely treated with surgery.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy (manual therapy) for lymphedema should begin with someone specially trained in treating lymphedema. In this type of massage, the soft tissues of the body are lightly rubbed, tapped, and stroked. It is a very light touch, almost like a brushing. Massage may help move lymph out of the swollen area into an area with working lymph vessels. Patients can be taught to do this type of massage therapy themselves.

When done correctly, massage therapy does not cause medical problems. Massage should not be done on any of the following:

When lymphedema is severe and does not get better with treatment, other problems may be the cause.

Sometimes severe lymphedema does not get better with treatment or it develops several years after surgery. If there is no known reason, doctors will try to find out if the problem is something other than the original cancer or cancer treatment, such as another tumor.

Lymphangiosarcoma is a rare, fast-growing cancer of the lymph vessels. It is a problem that occurs in some breast cancer patients and appears an average of 10 years after a mastectomy. Lymphangiosarcoma begins as purple lesions on the skin, which may be flat or raised. A CT scan or MRI is used to check for lymphangiosarcoma. Lymphangiosarcoma usually cannot be cured.

  • Updated: December 12, 2013