Doctor taking blood pressure of patient.

Lymphedema Treatment

Some cancer treatments help rid the body of cancer, but at the risk of developing conditions like lymphedema. Lymphedema is not an emergency but it is important to get prompt care to prevent lymphedema from worsening. As your partner in health, we're here to provide education about lymphedema and the strategies to manage it or reduce the chance of developing it after cancer treatment.

Lymphedema, also called lymphatic obstruction, is the unnatural swelling of the legs, arms, or chest wall, particularly after treatment for breast cancer. It occurs when lymphatic vessels of the arm are no longer able to remove all the lymphatic fluid that is normally filtered from the tissue. The most common form of lymphedema results from cancer treatment.

Certain breast cancer treatments, such as sentinel lymph node biopsy or axillary lymph node dissection, directly affect how lymph nodes operate and pose a risk for developing lymphedema. Studies show that the risk of developing lymphedema after axillary lymph node dissection are higher than those of sentinel lymph node biopsy, up to 25%.

Symptoms of lymphedema include visible swelling in the arm, hand, breast, or chest wall; a sensation of heaviness, achiness, or tightness in the arm; easy fatigability of the arm; or pain in the arm. It can also be triggered by an injury, infection, burn, weight gain, or trauma.

If you’ve developed lymphedema, the standard method of treatment is manual lymphatic drainage. Manual lymph drainage is a specialized hands-on technique that applies light pressure, just like a massage, to improve lymphatic flow. It is used in conjunction with multilayer bandaging in order to ease obstruction of the lymph nodes.

Because there’s no cure for lymphedema, the best treatment is prevention and management. At Providence, we offer a variety of management techniques and procedure to help ease the symptoms of lymphedema. These include:

  • Manual lymphatic drainage
  • Exercise (Decongestive and strengthening)
  • Bandaging
  • Joint mobilization
  • Kinesio taping
  • Custom compression garments, with onsite fitting
  • Scar tissue modification/mobilization
  • Activities of daily living skills training
  • Intermittent sequential vaso-pneumatic pump use
  • Education program for self-management

There are also a wide variety of preventative measures you can take. To reduce your chance of developing lymphedema:

  • Avoid getting breaks in the skin that can lead to infection of the affected arm. If you do get a cut, clean the area well and apply antibacterial ointment and a bandage. Watch the area for signs of infection until it heals.
  • Use a moisturizer daily to help protect the skin of your arm and hand.
  • Manicure your nails carefully. Do not cut the cuticles.
  • Wear gloves when gardening, cleaning, or washing dishes.
  • Use care when removing hair under your arm. Do not use a straight razor or hair removal (depilatory) cream, as they can cause skin breaks.
  • Use insect repellent to avoid stings.
  • Avoid tight jewelry, clothing, or anything that can cause a tourniquet effect (such as blood drawing or the taking of blood pressures) on the affected arm. If both arms are involved, ask your doctor how to proceed.
  • Take care not to get sunburned. Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
  • Avoid the use of local heating and hot packs on the affected arm and shoulder.