Lymphedema


Lymphedema is chronic swelling that happens when the lymphatic fluid is not moving properly. It occurs as a result of poor function of lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Lymphedema results in chronic swelling that leads to tissue inflammation and scarring. The swollen body part feels harder to touch and heavier than the non-swollen side. People who have had lymph nodes removed during their cancer treatment have an increased risk for developing lymphedema.

The risk of lymphedema increases with the greater the number of lymph nodes removed, receiving radiation therapy, being overweight, having active cancer, or having an infection/injury to the at risk body part. Not all swelling in the body is lymphedema. Patients should be sure to discuss swelling anywhere in their body with their physician, nurse or therapist.

How is lymphedema treated?

The best recognized treatment for lymphedema is complete decongestive therapy (CDT), a treatment program by a physical therapist.

How can I decrease my risk of getting lymphedema?

There is no research that demonstrates that lymphedema can be prevented but the risk of developing lymphedema can be reduced or moderated by understanding how to reduce the demand placed on the lymphatic system in the arm.

Some things patients can do to decrease your risk for lymphedema are:

  • Take good care of the skin to reduce the risk of infection and injury
  • Avoid constricting blood flow
  • Maintain ideal weight
  • Exercise with care

The Cancer Rehabilitation Program at the Abramson Cancer Center and the lymphedema program at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital can help patients prevent or treat lymphedema.

Learn more about lymphedema on OncoLink.