Lymphedema

Definition

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

What to Expect

Lymphedema may start 6 - 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 until 18 - 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 the Swelling

Use your arm with lymphedema for everyday activities, such as combing your hair, bathing, dressing, and eating. But, be careful not to overwork your arm or leg. 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

Clean the skin of your arm or leg every day. 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.

Taking care of cuts and scratches:

Taking care of burns:

Living with lymphedema can be very hard. Ask your doctor about a special physical therapist who can tell you about:

Wear your compression sleeve during the day, but you may remove it at night. Always make sure you get the right size.

Wear a compression sleeve when traveling by air if you fly a lot, or for long flights. If possible, keep your arm above the level of your heart during long flights.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms:

References

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

Gamble GL. Lymphedema: Nonoperative treatment. In: Cronenwett JL and Johnston W., eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 66.

Davidson N. Breast cancer and benign breast disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 204.


Review Date: 6/7/2012
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Shabir Bhimji, MD, PhD, Specializing in General Surgery, Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery, Midland, TX. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Inc.
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