Unfortunately, ignoring lymphedema won’t make it go away. Once you have it, your only options are to manage it to the best of your abilities or allow it to get out of control. The biggest risk to not treating lymphedema is an increased risk of infection. Because fluid and waste products are slow to leave your involved extremity, your body may not be aware of bacteria and viruses until they have had a chance to multiply. By the time your body is aware of the “invaders,” your infection may require oral or IV antibiotics. These infections cause further damage to the lymphatic system and repeated infections can progress lymphedema quickly or lead to sepsis (whole body infection).
The other risks to non-treatment are heaviness or the involved extremity, leading to joint pain, limited motion, reduced strength, and nerve damage. Because of the reduced immune system, there is also an increased risk, although minimal, of certain types of cancers.
Do I have to deal with lymphedema for the rest of my life?
Lymphedema is a progressive disease. Once you have had lymph nodes removed via surgery or damaged via radiation, you are at risk for lymphedema. Because lymph nodes do not regrow, you will remain at risk for developing lymphedema for the rest of your life and need to follow precautions from that point on. If swelling has started, you will need to use some type of management for the rest of your life. If treated early on, your chances of easily keeping it under control down the road are better. Treatment options in the earlier phases may only require occasional use of a compression garment, exercise or a self-massage. Without treatment, this condition will progress at a faster rate. Management in later phases requires consistent use of a compression garment as well as self-bandaging on some or all nights.