Risks of developing Lymphodema

Last Modified: June 8, 2012


My doctor told me I am at risk to get lymphedema because of them taking out so many lymph nodes in my neck, how can I prevent myself from getting this?


Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN OncoLink Nurse Educator at Penn Medicine, responds:

Unfortunately, although there are some things that can be done to reduce one's risk, there is no reliable way to prevent lymphedema in the head and neck or to predict who will develop it. Anyone who has had lymph nodes removed from their neck, or who has radiation therapy to their neck, is at risk for developing lymphedema. In general, because the swelling associated with lymphedema accumulates most easily in the fatty tissues of the body, maintaining a healthy weight is a good idea. Inflammation in the skin may put you at increased risk for lymphedema. Take care of your skin with gentle soaps and moisturizers. Avoid scrapes and nicks by using an electric razor. Never let yourself get sunburn in an area where you have had radiation. Avoid tight collars and neckties. Maintaining good posture helps keep the front of your neck in a position which helps edema fluid flow down towards your chest and your back, where the lymphatic system is working normally.

Working with a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) is a good idea for anyone who has had a head or neck cancer surgery, even if you have not been diagnosed with lymphedema. This can be a Physical or Occupational Therapist (PT, CLT or OT, CLT) who has had extra training in caring for patients with or at risk for lymphedema. It is a good idea to ask ahead of time if your therapist has experience working with head and neck cancer survivors. If needed, your therapist can show you how to use a nighttime compression garment and how to perform a technique called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) where you learn how to stretch your skin with your hands to move any edema fluid away from your neck.

Lymphedema is not the only concern for head and neck cancer survivors. A PT, CLT or OT, CLT can help you with other problems, such as: neck or shoulder pain, mobility, and function; softening and stretching out your surgical scars; helping with your posture; helping you with increasing how far your mouth can open.

This question and answer was part of the OncoLink Brown Bag Chat Series. View the entire Head and Neck Cancer Q&A Webchat transcript.


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