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Lymphedema (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Management

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Skin care

The goal of skin care is to minimize dermal colonization by bacteria and fungus, especially in the crevices, and hydrate the skin to control dryness and cracking.

Complex decongestive therapy

Complex decongestive therapy is a multimodality program that consists of manual lymphedema drainage therapy, low-stretch bandaging, exercises, and skin care.[8] This approach has been recommended as a primary treatment by consensus panels and as an effective therapy for lymphedema unresponsive to standard elastic compression therapy.[9,10]

Complex decongestive therapy is divided into two successive phases. The first phase consists of intensive treatment to allow substantive reduction of lymphedema volume. The second phase consists of maintenance treatment at home. Compliance with the use of the elastic sleeve and low-stretch bandage has been found to be an important determinant of success with maintenance therapy at home.[8] Complex decongestive therapy has also been shown to improve lymphedema following groin dissection.[11] Patients should be referred to a properly trained therapist for optimal results.

Intermittent external pneumatic compression

Intermittent external pneumatic compression may also provide additional improvement with lymphedema management when used adjunctively with decongestive lymphatic therapy. One small randomized trial of 23 women with new breast cancer–associated lymphedema found an additional significant volume reduction when compared with manual lymphatic drainage alone (45% vs. 26%).[12][Level of evidence: I] Similarly, improvements were also found in the maintenance phase of therapy. Concerns regarding the use of intermittent pneumatic compression include the optimum amount of pressure and treatment schedule and whether maintenance therapy is needed after the initial reduction in edema.[13][Level of evidence: I] There is a theoretical concern that pressures higher than 60 mmHg and long-term use may actually injure lymphatic vessels.

Pharmacologic therapy

No chronic pharmacologic therapy is recommended for patients with lymphedema. Diuretics are typically of little benefit and may promote intravascular volume depletion because the lymphedema fluid cannot be easily mobilized into the vascular space. Coumarin is associated with significant hepatotoxicity and has not been found to have any benefit in controlled trials.[14] Antibiotics should be used promptly for patients with evidence of cellulitis; intravenous use may sometimes be required for severe cellulitis, lymphangitis, or septicemia.

Weight loss

The results of a small randomized trial have suggested that breast cancer–related lymphedema may improve with weight loss.[15][Level of evidence: I] The mechanism by which obesity may predispose to lymphedema is unclear, but proposed mechanisms include an increased risk of postoperative complications, including infection, reduced muscle pumping efficiency, and separation of lymphatic channels by subcutaneous fat.[15] A larger, longer-term weight-loss intervention in cancer patients with lymphedema (including those with lower-extremity disease) is warranted to further explore weight loss for disease management.

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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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