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Lymphedema: Care Instructions


Lymphedema is a collection of fluid called lymph in the tissues of the body. It is often caused by cancer treatment, like surgery or radiation. Or it may be caused by cancer itself, such as when tumours press against lymph nodes or affect the lymph system. Other causes of lymphedema include infections, inflammatory conditions, obesity, and injury to the lymph nodes. Sometimes the cause isn't known.

Normally, lymph nodes trap bacteria and other substances as fluid flows through them. Then, the white cells in the body's defence, or immune, system can destroy the substances. But if there are few or no lymph nodes—or if the lymph system in an area of the body has been damaged—fluid can build up in the affected area. This can make you more likely to get an infection in that part of the body. This happens most often in an arm or leg.

Treatment focuses on managing lymphedema. This may include wearing compression garments to help reduce swelling and special massage to help drain lymph fluid from the area. It also includes self-care, such as watching closely for changes, protecting yourself from injury, and maintaining a healthy weight. Surgery is an option in some cases.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Wear a compression stocking or sleeve as your doctor suggests. It can help keep fluid from pooling in an arm or leg. Wear it during air travel.
  • Prop up the swollen arm or leg on a pillow anytime you sit or lie down. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
  • Avoid crossing your legs if they are swollen.
  • Get some exercise on most days of the week. Increase the intensity of exercise slowly. Wear your compression stocking or sleeve during exercise.
  • See a health professional, such as a physiotherapist, who has been trained in lymphedema management. They can teach you how to do self-massage to help fluid move around. You also can learn what activities are best for you.
  • If you have had treatment to your underarm area:
    • When possible, avoid having blood drawn from that arm.
    • When possible, avoid having a blood pressure cuff placed on that arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure your nurse and other hospital staff know of your condition.
  • Avoid skin infection or injury.
    • Wear gloves when gardening or doing other activities that may lead to cuts on your fingers or hands.
    • Do not walk barefoot. Wear comfortable and supportive shoes that fit properly.
    • Use sunscreen and insect repellent when outdoors to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
    • Ask your doctor how to treat any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries that may occur.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms from lymphedema.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.