Lymphedema: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Lymphedema is fluid that builds up in the arms or legs. It is often caused by surgery to remove lymph nodes during cancer treatment, especially breast cancer surgery, which can cause fluid to build up in the arm. It can happen after radiation treatment to an area that involves lymph nodes. It also can be caused by a fractured bone or surgery to fix a fracture. And some medicines also can cause lymphedema. Some people get it for unknown reasons.

Normally, lymph nodes trap bacteria and other substances as fluid flows through them. Then, the white cells in the body's defense, or immune, system can destroy the substances. But if there are few or no lymph nodes—or if the lymph system in an arm or leg has been damaged—fluid can build up in the affected arm or leg.

You can take simple steps at home to help treat or prevent fluid buildup. Treatment may include raising the arm or leg to let gravity drain the fluid. You also can wear compression stockings or sleeves.

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 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 your legs are swollen.
  • Get some exercise on most days of the week. Increase the intensity of exercise slowly. Water aerobics can help reduce swelling by helping fluid move around. Wear your compression stocking or sleeve during exercise, but not during water exercise.
  • See a physical therapist. He or she can teach you how to do self-massage to help fluid move around. You also can learn what activities would be best for you.
  • Keep your feet clean and wear clean socks or stockings every day. Check your feet often for signs of infection, such as redness or heat. Do not walk barefoot.
  • If you have had lymph nodes removed from under your arm:
    • Do not have blood drawn from the arm on the side of the lymph node surgery.
    • Do not allow a blood pressure cuff to be placed on that arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure your nurse and other hospital staff know of your condition.
    • Wear gloves when gardening or doing other activities that may lead to cuts on your fingers or hands.
  • If you have had lymph nodes removed from your groin:
    • Bathe your feet daily in lukewarm, not hot, water. Use a mild soap that has a moisturizer, or use a moisturizer separately.
    • Check your feet for blisters or cuts.
    • Wear comfortable and supportive shoes that fit properly.
    • Wear the correct size of panty hose and stockings. Avoid garters or knee-high or thigh-high stockings.
  • Ask your doctor how to treat any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries that may occur.
  • Use sunscreen and insect repellent when outdoors to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
  • Wear medical alert jewelry that says you have lymphedema. You can buy these at most drugstores and on the Internet.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor 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 if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms from lymphedema.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.