Managing Lymphedema

James Metz, MD
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: November 1, 2001
Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the extremities due to alteration of normal lymphatic flow. The lymphatic drainage can be altered through surgery, radiation therapy, or direct blockage of the drainage by a tumor. Taking precautions to prevent lymphedema is the best initial approach in management. If lymphedema occurs, you should notify your physician immediately because you may need prompt antibiotic therapy. The treatment of chronic lymphedema requires a commitment to certain lifestyle modifications. You should see a physiatrist or physical therapist who specializes in the management of chronic lymphedema for appropriate therapeutic recommendations. There are therapies for the management of chronic lymphedema. These include:
  • Keep the affected extremity higher than your heart to let gravity drain the accumulated fluid.
  • Flexibility and strengthening exercises may help drain fluid through muscular contractions "milking" the fluid back through the extremity. You should discuss these exercises with your physical therapist or physician.
  • Customized compression sleeves or elastic bandages applied in the proper manner may help prevent accumulation of fluid.
  • Maintain your ideal body weight. Many patients who are overweight find the lymphedema improves with weight loss.
  • Reduce your salt and sugar intake to prevent fluid retention.
  • Manual lymphatic drainage performed by a professional therapist with specialized training and certification.
  • Pneumatic compression stockings may be prescribed for some patients.
  • It is important to follow the recommendations to prevent lymphedema which will also reduce the problems you experience if it occurs.

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