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How to treat lymphedema

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Lymphedema is a swelling in the arms or legs due to abnormal accumulation of fluid. It happens when the lymph vessels or lymph nodes are damaged. It usually affects only one limb but both arms and legs can also swell.

The lymphatic system functions in collecting wastes such as bacteria and viruses using the lymph fluid and carry them to the lymph nodes. Then they are filtered and flushed out of the body by the lymphocytes. The lymphocytes are cells that fight infections present in the lymph nodes.

Causes of lymphedema


Swelling of the extremities, shoulders or the chest.

  • Removal of lymph nodes and lymph vessels during surgery for breast cancer.
  • Radiation therapy can cause inflammation and scarring of the lymph nodes
  • Cancer
  • Parasitical infection of the lymph nodes
  • Meige’s disease is a disorder that cause development of lymphatic system without valves that regulate the flow of lymphatic fluid.
  • Milroy’s disease, a congenital lymphedema


  • Some heavy sensations can be felt in the arms or legs
  • Redness or pain in the arms or leg
  • Swelling of the extremities, shoulders or the chest. The swelling happens for the first time after a trauma to the area or an infection or a long airplane trip.
  • Limited range of movement of the joints
  • Difficulty fitting into clothes
  • Tightness in the skin
  • Watches, rings and bracelets suddenly do not fit or are very tight
  • Recurring infections in the limb
  • The skin on the arms or legs becomes thick and hardened or fibrosis


  • Perform some mild exercises with the help of the physical therapist to drain the accumulation of lymphatic fluid out of the limb and lessen the swelling. The exercise focuses on the gentle expansion and contraction of the muscles of the arm and leg.
  • Elevate the affected area above the level of the heart to lessen and drain the accumulation of lymphatic fluid out of the affected area.
  • Bandage the affected area to drain accumulation of lymphatic fluid out the affected limb back towards the chest. Wrap the bandage around the fingers or toes tightly and loosen it when proceeding further up the limb. Avoid wrapping it too tight to prevent problems with circulation and worsen the condition.
  • Using manual lymph drainage is a massage technique that drains the accumulation of lymphatic fluid from the affected arm or leg. It uses a special stroke of hand on the affected area that moves the lymphatic fluid towards the healthy lymph node and then drains out.
  • Use the prescribed pneumatic compression where an inflatable sleeve is placed over the affected area. It is connected to a pump and inflates it and puts pressure on the limb. This process slowly drains fluid away from the affected limb and lessens the swelling.
  • Wear prescribed compression garments. These are long sleeves or stockings that give pressure to the affected area and for fast drainage of the lymphatic fluid. It prevents the affected limb from swelling up again.


  • Avoid injuries to the limb such as scrapes, cuts and burns to prevent infection. Wear gloves when gardening or cooking.
  • If possible avoid medical procedures such as vaccinations and blood draws in the affected area.
  • Avoid applying heat such as heating pad and extreme cold to the affected limb to prevent further injury.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing.
  • Maintain cleanliness of the affected arm or leg.
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