There's no cure for lymphedema. Treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and controlling the pain. Lymphedema treatments include:
- Exercises. Light exercises that require you to move your affected arm or leg may encourage movement of the lymph fluid out of your limb. These exercises shouldn't be strenuous or make you tired. Instead, they should focus on gentle contraction of the muscles in your arm or leg. Your doctor or a physical therapist can teach you exercises that may help.
- Wrapping your arm or leg. Bandages wrapped around your entire limb encourage lymph fluid to flow back out of your affected limb and toward the trunk of your body. When bandaging your arm or leg, start by making the bandage tightest around your fingers and toes. Wrap the bandage more loosely as you move up your arm or leg. A lymphedema therapist can show you how to wrap your limb.
- Massage. A special massage technique called manual lymph drainage may encourage the flow of lymph fluid out of your arm or leg. Manual lymph drainage involves special hand strokes on your affected limb to gently move lymph fluid to healthy lymph nodes, where it can drain. Massage isn't for everyone. Avoid massage if you have a skin infection, active cancer, blood clots or congestive heart failure. Also avoid massage on areas of your body that have received radiation therapy.
- Pneumatic compression. If you receive pneumatic compression, you'll wear a sleeve over your affected arm or leg. The sleeve is connected to a pump that intermittently inflates the sleeve, putting pressure on your limb. The inflated sleeve gently moves lymph fluid away from your fingers or toes, reducing the swelling in your arm or leg.
- Compression garments. Compression garments include long sleeves or stockings made to compress your arm or leg to encourage the flow of the lymph fluid out of your affected limb. Once you've reduced swelling in your arm or leg through other measures, your doctor may suggest you wear compression garments to prevent your limb from swelling in the future. Obtain a correct fit for your compression garment by getting professional help — ask your doctor where you can buy compression garments in your community. Some people will require custom-made compression garments.
When several of these treatments are combined, this therapy may be referred to as complete decongestive therapy (CDT). Generally, CDT isn't recommended for people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, paralysis, heart failure, blood clots or acute infections.
In cases of severe lymphedema, your doctor may consider surgery to remove excess tissue in your arm or leg. While this reduces severe swelling, surgery can't cure lymphedema.
Nov. 15, 2011
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- Creager MA, et al. Vascular diseases of the extremities. In: Longo DL, et al. Harrison's Online. 18th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=4. Accessed. Accessed Aug. 25, 2011.
- Mohler ER. Lymphedema: Etiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home/index.html. Accessed Aug. 25, 2011.
- Lawenda BD, et al. Lymphedema: A primer on the identification and management of a chronic condition in oncologic treatment. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2009;59:8.
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