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Lymphedema (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Managing Lymphedema

Patients can take steps to prevent lymphedema or keep it from getting worse.

Taking preventive steps may keep lymphedema from developing. Health care providers can teach patients how to prevent and take care of lymphedema at home. If lymphedema has developed, these steps may keep it from getting worse.

Preventive steps include the following:

Tell your health care provider right away if you notice symptoms of lymphedema.

See the General Information section for symptoms that may be caused by lymphedema. Tell your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms. The chance of improving the condition is better if treatment begins early. Untreated lymphedema can lead to problems that cannot be reversed.

Keep skin and nails clean and cared for, to prevent infection.

Bacteria can enter the body through a cut, scratch, insect bite, or other skin injury. Fluid that is trapped in body tissues by lymphedema makes it easy for bacteria to grow and cause infection. Look for signs of infection, such as redness, pain, swelling, heat, fever, or red streaks below the surface of the skin. Call your doctor right away if any of these signs appear. Careful skin and nail care helps prevent infection:

  • Use cream or lotion to keep the skin moist.
  • Treat small cuts or breaks in the skin with an antibacterial ointment.
  • Avoid needle sticks of any type into the limb (arm or leg) with lymphedema. This includes shots or blood tests.
  • Use a thimble for sewing.
  • Avoid testing bath or cooking water using the limb with lymphedema. There may be less feeling (touch, temperature, pain) in the affected arm or leg, and skin might burn in water that is too hot.
  • Wear gloves when gardening and cooking.
  • Wear sunscreen and shoes when outdoors.
  • Cut toenails straight across. See a podiatrist (foot doctor) as needed to prevent ingrown nails and infections.
  • Keep feet clean and dry and wear cotton socks.

Avoid blocking the flow of fluids through the body.

It is important to keep body fluids moving, 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.
  • Do not carry handbags on the arm with lymphedema.
  • Do not use a blood pressure cuff on the arm with lymphedema.
  • Do not use elastic bandages or stockings with tight bands.

Keep blood from pooling in the affected limb.

  • Keep the limb with lymphedema raised higher than the heart when possible.
  • Do not swing the limb quickly in circles or let the limb hang down. This makes blood and fluid collect in the lower part of the arm or leg.
  • Do not apply heat to the limb.

Studies have shown that carefully controlled exercise is safe for patients with lymphedema.

Exercise does not increase the chance that lymphedema will develop in patients who are at risk for lymphedema. In the past, these patients were advised to avoid exercising the affected limb. Studies have now shown that slow, carefully controlled exercise is safe and may even help keep lymphedema from developing. Studies have also shown that, in breast-cancer survivors, upper-body exercise does not increase the risk that lymphedema will develop. (See the Exercise section under Treatment of Lymphedema for more information.)

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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