More studies are needed to find out if weight-lifting is safe for cancer survivors with lymphedema in the legs.
Once the lymph fluid is moved out of a swollen limb, bandaging (wrapping) can help prevent the area from refilling with fluid. Bandages also increase the ability of the lymph vessels to move lymph along. Lymphedema that has not improved with other treatments is sometimes helped with bandaging.
The goal of skin care is to prevent infection and to keep skin from drying and cracking. See skin care tips, in the Managing Lymphedema section.
Combined physical therapy is a program of massage, bandaging, exercises, and skin care managed by a trained therapist. At the beginning of the program, the therapist gives many treatments over a short time to decrease most of the swelling in the limb with lymphedema. Then the patient continues the program at home to keep the swelling down. Combined therapy is also called complex decongestive therapy.
Compression devices are pumps connected to a sleeve that wraps around the arm or leg and applies pressure on and off. The sleeve is inflated and deflated on a timed cycle. This pumping action may help move fluid through lymph vessels and veins and keep fluid from building up in the arm or leg. Compression devices may be helpful when added to combined therapy. The use of these devices should be supervised by a trained professional because too much pressure can damage lymph vessels near the surface of the skin.
In patients who are overweight, lymphedema related to breast cancer may improve with weight loss.
Laser therapy may help decrease lymphedema swelling and skin hardness after a mastectomy. A hand-held, battery-powered device is used to aim low-level laser beams at the area with lymphedema.
Lymphedema is not usually treated with drugs. Antibiotics may be used to treat and prevent infections. Other types of drugs, such as diuretics or anticoagulants (blood thinners), are usually not helpful and may make the lymphedema worse.
Lymphedema caused by cancer is rarely treated with surgery.
Massage therapy (manual therapy) for lymphedema should begin with someone specially trained in treating lymphedema. In this type of massage, the soft tissues of the body are lightly rubbed, tapped, and stroked. It is a very light touch, almost like a brushing. Massage may help move lymph out of the swollen area into an area with working lymph vessels. Patients can be taught to do this type of massage therapy themselves.
When done correctly, massage therapy does not cause medical problems. Massage should not be done on any of the following:
- Open wounds, bruises, or areas of broken skin.
- Tumors that can be seen on the skin surface.
- Areas with deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in a vein).
- Sensitive soft tissue where the skin was treated with radiation therapy.