Not Your Run of the Mill Swelling: How to Identify and Manage Your Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a build-up of fluid that occurs under your skin and causes swelling. This fluid, also known as lymphatic or lymph fluid, can build up in places where your lymphatic system has been damaged.

If you are asking yourself what your lymphatic system is, here is a breakdown: 

  • Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, lymph nodes, and vessels that carry lymphatic fluid around your body. 

  • This fluid contains both nutrients and white blood cells, which are important to our everyday well-being. 

  • Our lymphatic vessels transport lymph fluid around our body and return it back into the bloodstream. 

  • Our lymph nodes help store our white blood cells and filter out any germs or foreign cells in our body. 

  • The organs involved in assisting our lymphatic system include the tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus.  

Where is lymphedema commonly seen? 

Lymphedema most often occurs in the arms or legs. However, other areas of the body, such as face, belly, breast, and neck, can be affected.  

What are some causes of lymphedema in cancer patients? 

  • Surgeries that remove lymph nodes 

  • Radiation therapy near lymph vessels and/or nodes 

  • Leukemia due to the increase in production of white blood cells 

  • Infections that cause blockages in the lymphatic system 

What are some of the symptoms associated with lymphedema? 

Symptoms of lymphedema may vary in each patient and depend on which area of the lymphatic system is blocked or damaged.

Some of the more common symptoms are: 

  • Swelling in the neck, face, arms, chest/abdomen, breast, groin, or legs 

  • Changes in the skin to include reddening, feeling of tightness, blisters, and warmth 

  • Itching, burning, numbness, or tingling in the affected area  

  • Tightness of clothing, rings, or shoes in the affected area of the body 

  • Decreased range of motion or tightness to a joint (such as the shoulder) 

What should I do if I think I have lymphedema? 

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing symptoms of lymphedema, the first step is to contact your doctor. A physical assessment should be performed to make sure there is no other issue causing the swelling.

Once your doctor has confirmed that you do have lymphedema, here are a few things you can try:

  • Follow a daily exercise schedule. Exercising the affected extremity helps with fluid draining. 

  • Consult with a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). This specialist can provide you with recommendations to help manually drain the fluid with massage and exercise. This is often the first line of treatment in managing your lymphedema. 

  • Avoid wearing restrictive clothing in the affected area. 

  • Discuss with your team whether compressive garments are an option for you. These include stockings or sleeves that can help recirculate the fluid. 

  • Do not have your blood pressure taken or allow needle sticks on the arm where lymphedema is present. 

  • Whenever possible, elevate the affected body parts to help reduce swelling. 

Things to remember when managing lymphedema 

  • Practice good skin and nail care to prevent infections. Do not cut cuticles. 

  • If other treatments are not helping relieve lymphedema, surgery may be an option.  

  • Use lotion to help prevent any dry or broken skin. 

  • Make sure to wear sunblock and clothing to cover your skin when outdoors to avoid sunburn on the affected areas. 

  • Be sure to use bug spray when you are outdoors. 

  • Wear gloves when partaking in gardening. 

  • Avoid injury to the affected area as this can worsen the lymphedema. 

Are you concerned about your risk for lymphedema? 

  • It may be helpful to consult with a physical therapist or a certified lymphedema specialist. These experts can provide information on prevention and monitoring.  

  • Ask your provider if they can provide a referral for consultation.