Lymphedema is the build-up of fluids in your body. It can cause an arm, leg, or other area of your body to swell and become painful. The disorder is usually lifelong.

What to expect

Lymphedema may start 6 to 8 weeks after surgery or after radiation treatment for cancer.

It can also start very slowly after your cancer treatment is over. You may not notice symptoms for 18 to 24 months after treatment. Sometimes it can take years to develop.

Even a small infection or injury can cause lymphedema to start.

Ways to help relieve swelling

Use your arm that has lymphedema for everyday activities, such as combing your hair, bathing, dressing, and eating. Rest this arm above the level of your heart 2 or 3 times a day while you are lying down.

Take good care of your skin

Every day, clean the skin of your arm or leg that has lymphedema. Use lotion to keep your skin moist. Check your skin every day for any changes.

Protect your skin from injuries, even small ones.

Take care of your feet.

Do not put too much pressure on your arm or leg with lymphedema.

Taking care of cuts and scratches.

Taking care of burns.

Living with lymphedema can be hard. Ask your doctor about visiting a physical therapist who can teach you about:

Wear your compression sleeve during the day. Remove it at night. Make sure you get the right size.

Wear a compression sleeve when traveling by air. If possible, keep your arm above the level of your heart during long flights.

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:


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Korpani MI, Crevenna R, Fialka-Moser V. Lymphedema: a therapeutic approach in the treatment and rehabilitation of cancer patients. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;90(5 Suppl 1):S69-S75.

National Cancer Institute: Lymphedema (PDQ®). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated March 18, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2014.

Towers A. Lymphedema. In: Walsh D, Caraceni AT, Fainsinger R, et al, eds. Palliative Medicine. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 87.

Review Date: 5/7/2014
Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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