Lymphedema: Managing Lymphedema

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If you have had lymph nodes removed or have had radiation as part of cancer treatment, you can take steps to avoid lymphedema. If you already have lymphedema, you can take steps to keep it from getting worse.

  • Learn how to recognize infection and what you need to do every day to prevent it.
  • Learn how to exercise right to help the circulation in an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Learn how to protect an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Take good care of your skin and nails.

How to manage lymphedema

Know the symptoms

Learn to recognize symptoms of lymphedema so that you can get treatment right away. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling as though your clothes, rings, or other jewelry are too tight.
  • A feeling of fullness in your arm or leg.
  • Less flexibility in your wrist, hand, or ankle.
  • Heaviness and swelling of the chest area where the breast was removed.

Keep lymph fluid moving

Do all you can to help keep the lymph fluid moving so that it doesn't collect in your arm or leg.

  • Prop up your arm or leg on a pillow anytime you sit or lie down. Try to keep the limb above the level of your heart whenever you can.
  • Try to limit the use of a blood pressure cuff on your affected arm. If you are in the hospital, make sure that your nurse and other hospital staff know about your condition.
  • If your leg is affected, try not to cross your legs when you sit. Don't sit in one position longer than 30 minutes.
  • Keep your clothing loose around the limb that is affected. For example, don't wear shirts with elastic cuffs. Wear the right size panty hose and stockings. Don't wear garters or knee-high or thigh-high stockings.
  • Don't use heating pads on the area. And stay out of saunas and hot tubs. Heat may increase the blood flow and make swelling worse.
  • Be careful not to overuse your arm or leg right after your surgery. But check with your doctor to see when it is okay to exercise that part of your body.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about what daily exercises you should do. Exercises can help drain the lymph fluid.
  • See a physical therapist. He or she can teach you how to do special massages that can help move fluid out of your arm or leg. You also can learn what activities would be best for you.

Protect your arm or leg

Do all you can to protect your arm or leg from injury and infection.

  • Ask your doctor how to treat any cuts, scratches, insect bites, or other injuries that you may get.
  • Use sunscreen and insect repellent to protect your skin from sunburn and insect bites.
  • Protect your arm or leg from needle injections—no blood draws or shots, including chemotherapy. If you are in the hospital, make sure that your nurse and other hospital staff know about your condition.
  • Wear gloves when you garden or do other activities that may lead to cuts on your fingers and hands. Use a thimble when you sew.
  • Keep your feet clean, and wear clean socks or stockings every day.
  • Don't walk barefoot, especially outside.
  • Check your feet often for cuts, blisters, or signs of infection.
  • Take good care of your skin and nails. Use a mild soap that has a moisturizer, or use a moisturizer separately. Skin that is dry and cracked can get infected. Be careful when you clip your nails. Don't cut your cuticles.
  • Use an electric razor if you shave an arm or leg that is affected.
  • Call your doctor at the first sign of a rash or inflammation on your arm or leg.
  • Follow your doctor's advice about wearing a special bandage or compression garment. These specially fitted stockings or sleeves are designed to help keep fluid from pooling in the leg or arm.


Current as of: September 8, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Wendy Y. Chen MD, MPH - Medical Oncology, Hematology
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine

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.