Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Tips for managing lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that can sometimes occur as a result of breast cancer treatments such as radiation and surgery. While lymphedema can sometimes be uncomfortable, the suggestions below are simple ways that you can manage the condition to help you feel your best and maintain quality of life.

  • Speak with your doctor: If you think that you may be living with lymphedema, don’t be afraid to speak with your doctor about your symptoms. The sooner you pinpoint the condition, the sooner you can start formulating an appropriate treatment plan.
  • Maintain a proper diet: Foods high in salt and fat can lead to increased swelling. Try to avoid these foods as much as possible, and stay hydrated at all times. Also, maintaining a healthy weight can help to reduce the chance of swelling.
  • Elevate the limb: Keep your affected arm or leg above the level of your heart as often as you can to help reduce swelling. Avoid stretching or holding your arm over your head for extended periods of time.
  • Protect the affected area: Do your best to keep your limb protected from sores, burns, scratches or any other injuries that might increase the pain, as these limbs are going to be more sensitive. Avoid muscle strain, vigorous activity, repetitive movements or heavy lifting.
  • Consider compression garments: These garments are made to compress your arm or leg and encourage the flow of the lymph fluid. Once the swelling has reduced, your doctor may recommend wearing the compression garments to prevent swelling in the future. Be sure to consult with a professional to find a garment that fits correctly. You can also purchase custom compression garments.
  • Engage in light exercises: Light exercises that involve moving the affected arm or leg may help to move the lymph fluid out of your limb, but make sure that the exercises are not too strenuous. Your doctor or physical therapist can teach you specific exercises that will be the most effective.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures: Limit your exposure to extremes of cold or heat, which can be associated with increased fluid build-up, swelling and skin irritation.
  • Stay out of the sun: Sunburns can cause more trouble for your lymphatic system, so do your best to stay out of the sun. If you have to be outside, always wear sunscreen. Don’t forget that you can get sunburned while wearing a compression garment.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing: Wear clothes that are comfortable and loose fitting, especially around the limb that is affected by lymphedema. This includes shoes and undergarments, as well as watches, jewelry and gloves.
  • Lymph drainage therapy: Lymph drainage therapy is a specialized massage technique designed to activate the pumping action of your lymphatic system. The pumping action reduces and, in some cases, prevents fluid buildup.
  • Visit a physical or rehabilitation therapist: Your doctor can help you locate a rehabilitation or physical therapist trained in managing lymphedema. The therapist can assess your condition and work with you to develop an individualized lymphedema management plan.
  • Control the pain: You may experience pain caused by the swelling and pressure on nerves, loss of muscle tissue and function, or scar tissue. Your doctor may treat your pain with medications, relaxation techniques, transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) or other methods. When you address the pain caused by lymphedema you will be able to eat well, sleep well and maintain your quality of life.