If you're at risk of lymphedema — for instance, if you've recently had cancer surgery involving your lymph nodes — your doctor may diagnose lymphedema based on your signs and symptoms.
If the cause of your lymphedema isn't as obvious, your doctor may order imaging tests to get a look at your lymph system. Tests may include:
- MRI scan. Using a magnetic field and radio waves, an MRI produces 3-D, high-resolution images.
- CT scan. This X-ray technique produces detailed, cross-sectional images of your body's structures. CT scans can reveal blockages in the lymphatic system.
- Doppler ultrasound. This variation of the conventional ultrasound looks at blood flow and pressure by bouncing high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) off red blood cells. Ultrasound can help find obstructions.
- Radionuclide imaging of your lymphatic system (lymphoscintigraphy). During this test you're injected with a radioactive dye and then scanned by a machine. The resulting images show the dye moving through your lymph vessels, highlighting blockages.
There's no cure for lymphedema. Treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and controlling the pain. Lymphedema treatments include:
Exercises. Light exercises in which you move your affected limb may encourage lymph fluid drainage and help prepare you for everyday tasks, such as carrying groceries. Exercises shouldn't be strenuous or tire you but should focus on gentle contraction of the muscles in your arm or leg. A certified lymphedema therapist can teach you exercises that may help.
Wrapping your arm or leg. Bandaging your entire limb encourages lymph fluid to flow back toward the trunk of your body. The bandage should be tightest around your fingers or toes and loosen as it moves 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. And various massage treatments may benefit people with active cancer. Be sure to work with someone specially trained in these techniques.
Massage isn't for everyone. Avoid massage if you have a skin infection, blood clots or active disease in the involved lymph drainage areas.
Pneumatic compression. A sleeve worn over your affected arm or leg connects to a pump that intermittently inflates the sleeve, putting pressure on your limb and moving lymph fluid away from your fingers or toes.
Compression garments. Long sleeves or stockings made to compress your arm or leg encourage the flow of the lymph fluid out of your affected limb. Wear a compression garment when exercising the affected limb.
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.
If you have difficulties putting on or taking off the compression garment, there are special techniques and aids to help with this; your lymphedema therapist can review options with you. In addition, if compression garments or compression wraps or both are not an option, sometimes a compression device with fabric fasteners can work for you.
Complete decongestive therapy (CDT). This approach involves combining therapies with lifestyle changes. 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 to reduce swelling. There are also newer techniques for surgery that might be appropriate, such as lymphatic to venous anastomosis or lymph node transplants.
Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.
Coping and support
It can be frustrating to know there's no cure for lymphedema. However, you can control some aspects of lymphedema. To help you cope, try to:
- Find out all you can about lymphedema. Knowing what lymphedema is and what causes it can help you communicate with your doctor or physical therapist.
- Take care of your affected limb. Do your best to prevent complications in your arm or leg. Clean your skin daily, looking over every inch of your affected limb for signs of trouble, such as cracks and cuts. Apply lotion to prevent dry skin.
- Take care of your whole body. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Exercise daily, if you can. Reduce stress. Try to get enough sleep. Taking care of your body gives you more energy and encourages healing.
- Get support from others with lymphedema. Whether you attend support group meetings in your community or participate in online message boards and chat rooms, it helps to talk to people who understand what you're going through. Contact the National Lymphedema Network to find support groups in your area. The organization can also put you in touch with other people with lymphedema.
Preparing for your appointment
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment with your doctor.
What you can do
List the following:
- Your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment
- Key personal information, including major illnesses or trauma, cancer treatments or recent life changes
- Medications, vitamins and supplements you take
- Questions to ask your doctor
For lymphedema, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the likeliest cause of this swelling?
- Could there be another cause?
- What tests do I need? Do these tests require special preparation?
- Is the swelling temporary or long lasting?
- What's the treatment for lymphedema?
- Are there alternatives to the approach you're suggesting?
- Are there medications to ease the swelling?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Do I need to restrict my diet or activities?
- Do you have brochures or other printed material that I can take? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions, as well.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- When did the swelling begin?
- Did anything precede the swelling, such as surgery, trauma, radiation therapy or new medications?
- Do you have other signs or symptoms?
- Has the swelling been continuous or occasional?
- Does anything seem to make the swelling better?
- Does anything seem to worsen your symptoms?
- Have you tried to treat the edema, and how did it work?
What you can do in the meantime
Keep your swollen limb elevated as much as possible and protect your skin from injury. The swelling from lymphedema might dull pain from an injury or burn, so don't use heating pads on the affected limb. Moisturize your skin daily.
Lymphedema care at Mayo Clinic
Dec. 21, 2017
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- Lymphedema (PDQ): Patient version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/lymphedema/lymphedema-pdq#section/all. Accessed Sept. 24, 2017.
- Warner KJ. Allscripts EPSi. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 29, 2017.
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