What is Lymphedema? 

Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs. Sometimes both arms or legs swell. Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling. There's no cure for lymphedema, but it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of your affected limb. 

There are 2 types of Lymphedema- Primary and Secondary: 

Primary Lymphedema is a genetic developmental disorder affecting the lymphatic system. Lymphatic fluid collects in the subcutaneous tissues under the epidermis due to obstruction, malformation, or underdevelopment (hypoplasia) of various lymphatic vessels. 

Secondary Lymphedema occurs because of damage to the lymphatic system from surgery, radiation therapy, trauma, infection (e.g. filariasis), or Venous Insufficiency. 


Lymphedema signs and symptoms, which occur in your affected body part arm, leg, pelvis include:

  • Swelling to part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Heavy full achy feeling
  • Recurring infections
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis) 

The swelling caused by lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme changes that make the limb hard to use. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment. 


There's no cure for Lymphedema but it can be controlled. Treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and controlling the discomfort and pain. Lymphedema treatments include:

  • Exercises. Light exercises in which you move your affected limb may encourage lymph fluid drainage and help prepare you for everyday activity. 
  • Compression Wrapping. Bandaging your entire limb or affected area encourages lymph fluid to flow back toward the trunk of your body. 
  • Massage MLD. A technique called manual lymph drainage may encourage the flow of lymph fluid out of your arm or leg. Be sure to have it done by someone specially trained in the technique. 
  • Pneumatic Compression. A sleeve worn over your affected arm or leg connects to a pump that intermittently inflates the sleeve, putting pressure on your limb and moving lymph fluid away from your fingers or toes. 
  • Compression Garments. Long sleeves or stockings made to compress your arm or leg encourage the flow of the lymph fluid out of your affected limb. Wear a compression garment when exercising the affected limb. Obtain a correct fit for your compression garment by getting professional help. Ask your doctor where you can buy compression garments in your community. Some people will require custom-made compression garments. 
  • Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). This approach involves combining therapies with lifestyle changes. 


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