How is lymphedema treated?

Lymphedema treatments vary, depending on the stage and cause of the condition.

If the initial signs and symptoms of swelling are caused by infection, antibiotics may be prescribed.

Your doctor may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who specializes in managing lymphedema. The therapist will assess your condition and work with you to develop an individual treatment plan. Therapy may include:

  • Specific exercises or a complete exercise program
  • Limitation of certain activities that are vigorous or repetitive
  • Manual lymphatic drainage therapy, a gentle form of skin stretching/massage
  • Complex decongestive therapy (specialized wrapping techniques)
  • Compression sleeve or stockings
  • Mechanical pumping devices, as needed in some cases

General guidelines for patients with lymphedema

Lymphedema can be prevented or managed by following the recommendations listed below, including: maintaining good nutrition, exercising regularly, avoiding infections, avoiding tight clothing, shoes or jewelry; avoiding heavy lifting with the affected arm, and practicing good skin care.

Maintain Good Nutrition

Maintaining good nutrition is an important part of your overall health care. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Reduce foods high in salt and fat.
  • Include at least two to four servings of fruits and three to five servings of vegetables in your daily meal plan.
  • Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need.
  • Use package label information to help you to make the best selections for a healthy lifestyle.
  • Eat foods high in fiber such as whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Drink plenty of water - eight 8-ounce glasses of water are recommended per day.
  • Maintain your ideal body weight. A registered dietitian or your health-care provider can help calculate your ideal body weight.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages.

Exercise Regularly

  • Always check with your physician first before starting a new exercise program. Generally, strenuous exercises involving the affected limb should be avoided. Your physician can provide specific instructions about the activities that are safe for you.
  • To improve cardiovascular fitness, you should perform aerobic activities, such as walking, swimming, low- impact aerobics or specially prescribed exercises, for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Take time to include a 5-minute warm-up, including stretching exercises, before any aerobic activity and include a 5- to 10-minute cool down after the activity. Exercise Regularly
  • If your normal exercise routine includes weight lifting with your arms, check with your doctor about the best time to resume this activity and ask if there are any weight restrictions.
  • Discontinue any exercise that causes unexpected pain. If your affected arm or leg becomes tired during exercise, cool down, then rest and elevate it.

Avoid Infections

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and warm water, especially before preparing food, and after using the bathroom or after touching soiled linens or clothes.
  • Wear gloves while doing housework or gardening.
  • Avoid cutting your cuticles when manicuring your nails. Use care when cutting your toenails. Treat athlete’s foot with antifungal powder.
  • Protect your skin from scratches, sores, burns and other irritations that might lead to infection. Use electric razors to remove hair and replace the razor head frequently.
  • Use insect repellents to prevent bug bites.
  • Immediately report any signs of infection to your physician, including:

Treat minor injuries immediately by washing the area with soap and water, applying antibiotic ointment, covering the area with a bandage and calling your doctor for medical advice.

Avoid Tight Clothing Shoes or Jewelry

  • Women should wear well-fitted bras; bra straps should not be too tight, avoid underwire styles, and wear pads under the bra straps if necessary.
  • Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes.
  • Avoid tight hosiery and socks.
  • Wear watches or jewelry loosely, if at all, on the affected arm.

Avoid Heavy Lifting with the Affected Arm

Avoid repetitive movements of the affected arm (such as scrubbing, pushing or pulling). Do not carry a purse or bag on the affected shoulder.

Keep Your Skin Meticulously Clean

  • Dry your skin thoroughly (including creases and between fingers and toes).
  • Apply lotion to surrounding skin, but not in between your toes.

Take Precautions During Visits to Your Doctors

  • Ask to have your blood pressure checked on the unaffected arm.
  • Avoid injections or blood draws on the affected side when possible.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/16/2019.

References

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy