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What You Need to Know about Lymphedema

Read Time: 3 minutes

Diagram of lymphatic system

Lymphedema is swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid. It can be a side effect of cancer treatment. This build-up can cause discomfort. It often happens in the arms or legs, but can also occur in the face, neck, abdomen (belly), or genitals.

It's important to know that lymphedema can cause serious problems and become a chronic condition. Early recognition is important in order to reduce symptoms and keep it from getting worse.

What is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system moves fluid through the body. The lymphatic system is part of your immune system. It is a network of lymph nodes, ducts, vessels, and organs that work together to collect and carry fluid through the body tissues to the blood.

What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema happens when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes are removed during surgery. It can also be a side effect of radiation treatment. For example, lymph nodes in the armpit could start to swell after treatment to that area.

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

  • Obesity
  • Infection
  • Insect bites
  • Overuse or injury
  • Sunburn or heat exposure
  • Little movement for a long time, such as a plane or car ride

What are signs of lymphedema?

Lymphedema is most common in 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 a 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 of developing lymphedema?

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

  • Removal of lymph nodes
  • Radiation therapy
  • Mastectomy
  • Lumpectomy
  • Vascular insufficiency
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Trauma to a limb

How is lymphedema treated?

At Huntsman Cancer Institute, your comprehensive care team has a wide range of tools available to manage and reduce your lymphedema symptoms:

Physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians can create a personalized treatment plan to manage lymphedema and swelling. Your physician may refer you to other healthcare professionals depending on your needs. This is often the first step in a comprehensive lymphedema treatment plan. To schedule an appointment with a PM&R physician, call 801-587-4091.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists with a lymphedema certification, such as complete decongestive therapists or certified lymphatic therapists (CDTs/CLTs), are experienced in managing lymphedema. Through evaluation, compression, self-massage techniques, skincare, and therapeutic exercises they can help with function and lymphatic flow.

To book an appointment with a physical therapist or occupational therapist for lymphedema support, call 801-587-4091.

Our massage therapists provide manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), which is supportive for lymphedema, swelling, and post-surgical recovery. To schedule an appointment, call 801-587-4585 and say you are interested in MLD massage.

Weight loss can be helpful for managing lymphedema in patients who are overweight or obese (BMI of 25 or greater). Registered dieticians (RDs) can help reduce your body weight by with a healthy diet. An appointment with one of our RDs can provide you with specific guidelines to manage your lymphedema. Call 801-587-4585 to book an appointment.

Cancer touches all of us.