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Health Issue: Lymphedema

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Copyright by the Society for Vascular Surgery and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

If you are at risk for developing lymphedema, there are steps you can take to help prevent it. Initially, if you have mild lymphedema, you can act to keep the condition from worsening. Here are some precautions to prevent or minimize symptoms:

  • Protect the arm on the side of the surgery.
  • Clean your affected limb regularly. Remember to dry it thoroughly and apply lotion.
  • Take good care of your fingernails.
  • Wear gloves while gardening and cooking.
  • If you shave the affected area, do so carefully using an electric razor.
  • Avoid crossing your legs when you sit.
  • Don’t go barefoot and remember to prevent sunburns.
  • Don’t carry handbags with your affected arm.
  • Don’t wear clothing with tight bands or elastic cuffs.
  • Do approved exercises and maintain a healthy, low-sodium diet.
  • Avoid extreme hot or cold temperatures on the affected area.
  • In addition, if you are at risk for lymphedema, avoid having injections and blood pressure readings performed on your affected limb. You can also wear a special bracelet or necklace to notify medical personnel of your risk for lymphedema and the risk for complications, such as infection.

For patients with lymphedema, the most common approach for treatment is to reduce swelling with compression and massage therapy and/or diet modifications. Some patients find greater relief with surgical management. Treatment for lymphedema depends on how severe it is. Other treatment options include special, approved exercises while wearing compression stockings or bandages and the use of external pumps to aid movement of fluid throughout your body.

Medication cannot cure lymphedema. However, your physician may prescribe medications to treat associated conditions. For example, antibiotics play an important role in combating infections that can worsen lymphedema.

Your doctor may consider surgery to remove excess tissue in your arm or leg to reduce swelling. There are also newer techniques for surgery that may be appropriate like lymphatic to venous anastomosis or lymph node transplant. Some other options your doctor may speak to you about include:

  • Liposuction.
  • Lymphaticovenous anastomosis (also referred to as lymphovenous bypass).
  • Vascularized lymph node transfer surgery (lymphovenous transplant).
  • Charles procedure (skin grafts).

To learn more about these surgery options, please visit this article.   

Treating your lymphedema requires your participation. Because lymphedema can be very painful, you may benefit from individual counseling. You can also join support groups that provide practical advice as well as social and emotional support.