What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema happens when there has been
injury or damage to the lymph system. This
injury/damage then leads to extra fluid
building up and causing swelling in the
arms, hands, and legs. Damage to your
lymphatic system does not allow for proper
drainage of fluid, which can eventually lead
What causes lymphedema?
There are many causes of lymphedema,
including surgical removal of lymph nodes,
radiation of lymph nodes, vascular disease
or complications, obesity, and other trauma
to the lymphatic system.
Surgery: During surgery, the doctor may
remove some of the lymph nodes from the
underarm area or groin to see if cancer has
spread. Some lymph vessels that carry fluid
from the arm or leg to the rest of the body
are removed also because they are
intertwined with the nodes. This changes
the way the lymph fluid flows on that side of
the body. If the remaining lymph vessels
cannot remove enough of the fluid in the
chest or limb area, then swelling
Radiation: Radiation treatment to the lymph
nodes in the under arm or groin can affect
the flow of lymph fluid in the arm and chest,
or leg area, respectively, in the same way.
Radiation can result in fibrosis (rubbery and
firm tissue) and can cause blocking of the
Patients who have both surgery and
radiation to the lymph nodes have a higher
risk of lymphedema than if they have either
What are the symptoms of lymphedema?
ξ Slight swelling, making your rings feel
tight on your fingers
ξ Severe swelling, causing your entire arm
or leg to be very swollen.
ξ Achiness, heaviness, fatigue in arm or
ξ Numbness/tingling of the involved
arm(s) or leg (s).
When does lymphedema occur?
Lymphedema can occur any time after
surgery; from weeks to even years. It is
important to follow the measures listed
below to reduce your risk of lymphedema.
Ways to help you reduce your risk of
1. Prevent infection. Your body responds
to infection by making extra lymph fluid
to fight the infection. You may be more
likely to get an infection in the affected
limb because the lymph channels have
been disrupted or removed. This can
ξ Avoid sun burns. Use sunscreen
that is labeled “SPF 15” or
ξ Use oven mitts.
ξ Avoid oil splash and steam burns
ξ Clean even small cuts right away
with soap and water. Use an
cream after they are cleaned.
Cover them with a bandage.
ξ Have all shots, IVs, blood draws,
or blood pressure tests done on
the unaffected arm if possible
ξ Wear gloves when you are in the
garden, using strong cleaning
products, or cleaning up after
ξ Use a thimble when sewing.
ξ Use an electric razor if shaving
under your arm or on your legs to
prevent cuts or nicks or choose a
shaver with rounded heads.
ξ Use insect repellent when
outdoors to avoid bug bites. If
you get stung by a bee in the
affected arm or leg, clean and
elevate the extremity, apply ice,
and contact your doctor if it
becomes infected (warmth,
redness, swelling, fever).
ξ Use your washcloth to gently
push back cuticles while in the
shower instead of cutting them.
2. Avoid saunas/hot tubs. Avoid spending
time in saunas or hot tubs since heat can
increase fluid build-up.
3. Control your weight. Try to avoid
gaining weight because extra fat in the
arm or leg requires more blood vessels.
Fat tissue makes more fluid in the arm or
leg and places a greater burden on the
lymph vessels that are left.
4. Exercise regularly
ξ It is important to gradually return
to your past level of activity after
surgery. This will reduce your
risk of strain from repetitive or
strenuous activity, which can
lead to injury.
ξ During radiation and up to 18
months after, do simple
stretching daily to keep your
range of motion.
ξ Research shows that regular
exercise at a level that is right for
you, reduces symptoms of
fatigue, improves endurance,
improves sleep, decreases pain
and can help reduce your risk of
Specific recommendations for your upper
ξ Exercise your affected arm while it is
elevated by opening and closing your
hand and bending and straightening your
elbow 15 – 30 times. Repeat these 3 – 4
times a day. This will decrease swelling
by pumping lymph fluid out of your arm.
ξ When you have full motion of your arm
and shoulder, you may increase exercise.
Start with a one pound weight and
increase when you can easily complete
three sets of 10 repetitions. If you don’t
have weights, use a soup can or a bottle
ξ Use your unaffected arm to carry heavy
things with shoulder straps such as
suitcases and handbags. When carrying
packages, children or groceries, use both
arms to reduce strain on the affected
Specific recommendations for your lower
ξ Return to walking and exercise when
your doctor says it is okay. Start slowly;
add time or distance, and gradually
increase repetitions with exercises.
ξ Exercise your affected leg while it is
elevated by squeezing your butt muscles,
pressing your knee into the bed, and
pumping your ankle for 10-15
repetitions. Repeat this 3-4 times a day.
This will decrease swelling by allowing
the muscles to pump excess fluid out of
ξ If swelling is present immediately after
surgery, elevate your leg on pillows at
night and as able during the day. Talk
with your medical team about
compression stockings, if persistent.
When should I call my doctor?
ξ Your arm or leg stays swollen and/or
painful for several days. This may be as
little as your rings feel tight on your
fingers, or your whole arm or leg may be
ξ You have constant symptoms of
lymphedema like achiness, heaviness,
feeling tired and/or numbness/tingling of
the involved arm or leg.
ξ You have any sign of infection in your
arm or leg (redness, warmth, swelling,
ξ Your arm or leg feels heavy and tight or
your hand, wrist or ankle is less flexible.
ξ You can’t move the involved arm or leg
as much as before.
ξ You develop thick cords in your under
arm area that you can see or feel when
you lift your arms over your head.
ξ The skin is hard or changes color on
your involved arm or leg.
The sooner lymphedema is noticed, the
better the treatment will work to reduce
the effects of lymphedema.
Lymphedema Measurements and
In spite of best efforts, some people develop
lymphedema, even when all tips are
ξ During your follow-up visits, you may
have measurements of the affected
limb(s). If there are major changes in
measurements over time, you may be
sent to a therapist specializing in
ξ Exercises may be prescribed to help
reduce swelling and increase movement.
ξ A therapist may train you in massage to
open lymph channels to help reduce
ξ A special snug fitting sleeve (a
compression sleeve or stocking) may be
ordered for you to wear. Some patients
learn how to bandage their arm or leg
with special lymphedema bandages to
reduce their swelling.
Using a soft tape measure, measure the circumference of each arm at these areas:
Circumference at the mid-hand ___ cm ___ cm
Circumference at the wrist crease ___ cm ___ cm
10 cm below elbow crease ___ cm ___ cm
10 cm above elbow crease ___ cm ___ cm
Using a soft tape measure, measure the circumference of each leg at these areas:
Arch of foot ____ cm ____ cm
Ankle bones ____ cm ____ cm
10 cm below knee crease ____ cm ____ cm
20 cm above knee crease ____ cm ____ cm
If you need a referral, below is a list of the clinics with therapists who specialize in lymphedema:
UW Health UW Health
University Hospital Hand Clinic
600 Highland Ave., E3/211 1 South Park Street
Madison, WI 53792 Madison, WI 53715
(608) 263-8060 Phone (608) 890-6170 Phone
(608) 262-7679 Fax (608) 890-6718 Fax
UW Health UW Health
Yahara Rehabilitation Clinic The American Center
1050 East Broadway 4602 Eastpark Blvd.
Monona WI, 53716 Madison, WI 53718
608-890-6110 clinic scheduler (608) 263-7540
608-221-6253 voice mail
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you have any
questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This is not medical advice.
This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each person’s health needs are different, you
should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using this information. If you have an emergency, please call
911. Copyright © 11/2016 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department
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