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Tips for Living with Lymphedema

  • author name Kirsten Ditzler, DPT, CLT-LANA, CWS
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Lymphedema, or swelling due to a build-up of lymphatic fluid in the body, is an uncomfortable and potentially serious condition most commonly caused by cancer or cancer treatment. It often occurs in breast cancer patients. Although lymphedema can cause long-term physical and psychological problems, early and careful management can help reduce the symptoms and keep it from getting worse.

What Causes Lymphedema?

People who have undergone radiation treatment or had lymph nodes removed during cancer surgery can experience lymphedema. The condition may appear any time after treatment—from a few months to many years. Some people are born with conditions that cause the lymph system to develop abnormally resulting in lymphedema. This is far less common.

Lymphatic fluid (a normally occurring fluid in the body) builds up because the lymphatic system isn’t working normally. To avoid more serious complications, talk to your health-care provider right aware if you notice symptoms of lymphedema.

How is Lymphedema Treated?

Although there is no cure for lymphedema or damage that has occurred, there are a variety of ways to control the swelling and keep other problems from developing, including physical therapy.

Lymphedema is treated with a combination of rehabilitation techniques to reduce the size of the limb and keep it from swelling again. For best results, these activities should be used in combination with each other:

  • A light massage technique called manual lymphatic drainage helps move lymphatic fluid out of the swollen limb
  • Compression bandaging using short-stretch bandaging, not ACE wraps, keeps fluid from coming back into the limb
  • Good skin and nail care to prevent infection
  • Careful, controlled exercise can help the lymph vessels move lymph out of the affected area and decrease swelling

Ultimately, long-term management of lymphedema includes a compression garment used during the day and either performing massage (taught by a physical therapist) or using a compression pump.

Some people may need overnight compression if their lymphatic system is severely compromised. Compression garments are never worn overnight, but alternatives are available.

Tips for Keeping Body Fluids Moving

To avoid blocking the flow of fluids through the body, especially through an affected limb or in areas where lymphedema may develop:

  • Do not cross legs while sitting.
  • Change sitting position at least every 30 minutes.
  • Wear only loose jewelry and clothes without tight bands or elastic.
  • Wear only loose jewelry and clothes without tight bands or elastic.
  • Do not use a blood pressure cuff on the arm with lymphedema.
  • Do not use elastic bandages or stockings with tight bands.

Other Conditions that Benefit from Lymphedema Therapy

People with other conditions that have a side effect of swelling (including chronic venous insufficiency, deep vein thrombosis, congestive heart failure, other inflammatory conditions), can benefit from the same treatment regimen as lymphedema. Because these conditions affect the entire body, these patients need to be monitored more closely. Physical therapist may request special clearance from other health-care providers to help ensure safety during treatment.

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health has locations throughout the region with more than 20 lymphedema therapists specializing in lymphedema management. If you or someone you know has swelling, talk with your physician about a physical therapy referral.

author name

Kirsten Ditzler, DPT, CLT-LANA, CWS

Kirsten Ditzler, BS, MPT, DPT, CLT-LANA, is a physical therapist based at the Women’s Specialty Center Women & Babies Hospital and Lancaster General Health Willow Lakes. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Kirsten received her doctorate in physical therapy from Temple University. Her areas of interest include women’s health, osteoporosis treatment, lymphedema management, and wound care. Kirsten is chair of the Lymphedema Clinical Excellence Team at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, and is nationally certified in lymphedema management from the Lymphology Association of North America.

Call: 717-544-3300

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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