Lymphedema and Travel

Andrea Branas, MSE, MPT, CLT & Joy Cohn, PT, DPT, CLT
Good Shepherd Penn Partners
Last Modified: March 21, 2016

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If you have had any surgical procedure that has affected your lymph nodes, travel-related activities may be of concern. During travel there can be many physical stresses that may affect a body part that is at risk for developing lymphedema. The demand on the lymph system may cause extra swelling for long periods of time, perhaps permanently.

Travel stresses can include rushing to catch your plane/train or ride; being jostled in a crowd; lifting, pulling or pushing baggage; changes in climate and atmospheric pressure; and multiple risks for infection. It is recommended that you take the following steps to limit negative effects that these stressors can have.


Avoid trauma to the body part:

  • Be careful not to bump your arm or leg that is at risk for developing lymphedema
  • Use light suitcases with wheels and avoid lifting cartons or luggage that is heavier than that which you lift day to day
  • Hire a porter or get help loading and unloading
  • Use your unaffected arm to pull suitcases or carry hand luggage
  • Wear comfortable/loose clothing

Limit the effect of prolonged lack of movement:

  • Get up and move around frequently
  • Perform exercise – (breathing exercise, shoulder rolls, elbow flexion and extension, wrist rotated, ball squeezes, marching, knee bends, toe and heel raises, ankle rotation, self- MLD) during travel.

Avoid Risk of Infection:

  • Carry a back-up prescription for antibiotics
  • Use SPF 20+ sunblock – remember you can get sunburn through a compression garment because of synthetic fabric
  • Use insect repellent and antifungal powder between toes and in skin folds
  • Any vaccinations that are required should be received in the unaffected arm
  • Wear foot covering, especially on the beach

Limit the effect of atmospheric pressure changes using compression:

  • For those at risk for developing lymphedema, it is recommended that you take the above precautions and discuss further concerns with your therapist or physician
  • For those with episodic swelling, it is recommended that you wear a compression sleeve or stocking when taking any airplane flights or increasing altitude above 8000 feet. Speak with your therapist regarding specific recommendations
  • For those with chronic lymphedema, it is recommended that you apply compression bandaging for all air travel. Bandages should be applied before air travel and should remain on for 1-2 hours after reaching your destination. If this is not possible, it is acceptable to wear a compression sleeve or stocking fit by a certified fitter. A trained therapist or certified fitter at a surgical supply or durable medical equipment provider can fit you with an appropriate garment. It is important that the compression not be too high; contact a trained professional to fit you with an appropriate compression sleeve or stocking.
  • Use a compression garment that is in good condition- if you wear a garment you MUST use a gauntlet or glove as well. Wearing just a sleeve may cause hand swelling.
  • Carry an old (back-up) garment.

Modified from Position Statement of the National Lymphedema Network on Air Travel, 2008.

Next Article: FAQs About Lymphedema Garments and Bandaging »


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