Mar 06, 2020 9:00 AM

Lymphedema is swelling in part of the body caused by a build-up of lymph fluid. It can be a side effect of cancer treatment.

The lymph system moves fluid throughout the body. Lymphedema can happen if lymph vessels are damaged or if lymph nodes were removed during surgery. It can also be a side effect of radiation treatment. For example, after removal of lymph nodes in the armpit or radiation to the lymph nodes in the armpit, swelling due to lymphedema may happen in that arm.

What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema can happen days, months, or even years after radiation treatment or cancer surgery. These are possible triggers:

  • Being overweight
  • Infection
  • Insect bites
  • Overuse or injury
  • Sunburn or heat exposure
  • Little movement for a long time such as on an airplane or car ride

What are the signs of lymphedema?

Lymphedema is most common in a limb such as the arm or leg. It can also happen in the face, neck, or abdomen. Symptoms may happen slowly over time or quickly if you have an infection or injury. Tell your health care provider right away if you have any of these signs:

  • Full, uncomfortable feeling in specific area
  • Pressure or tightness under the skin
  • Itching, aching, or burning feeling
  • Trouble moving a joint in the arm or leg
  • Indent that stays longer than normal after skin is firmly pressed

Am I at risk?

You may be at risk if you have experienced any of these:

  • Lymph nodes removed
  • Radiation therapy
  • Mastectomy
  • Lumpectomy
  • Vascular insufficiency
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Trauma to a limb

How is lymphedema treated?

At Huntsman Cancer Institute, certified physical therapists and massage therapists treat lymphedema in these ways:

  • A light massage called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)
  • Compression
  • Exercises

If you have lymphedema, you may also receive education about managing it at home by taking care to protect your skin, doing self MLD, and using compression.

Read more tips about how to prevent lymphedema. To make an appointment for lymphedema treatment, call 801-587-4091.

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