Lymphedema

Providence Cancer Center's Transitions Appearance Centers at both Providence Portland and Providence St. Vincent locations offer upper extremity compression garments to assist with the management of lymphedema.

The lymphatic system is made up of lymph vessels and lymph nodes, which carry a fluid called lymph. Lymph consists of waste from the cells. This fluid drains through lymph vessels under the skin to nearby lymph nodes. Lymph nodes filter waste products from the cells and kill any bacteria present before returning the lymph fluid to your blood circulation.

When the lymph vessels are damaged, lymph fluid cannot drain from tissues. This causes the lymph fluid to back up leading to swelling. This most often affects the arms or legs. Signs of lymphedema include heaviness, stiffness, or aching in an arm or leg. The limb may swell. The skin might look red. Shoes and rings may feel tight. Ankles and wrists might become less flexible.

The most common cause of damage to the lymph system is surgery or radiation for breast or testicular cancer. Other causes include repeated skin infections (cellulitis), burns, or injury to the arms or legs. It can take many years for symptoms of lymphedema to appear. Once present, lymphedema can become a chronic condition. This means the problem can be managed but not cured. 

Treatment often includes use of compression garments, massage, and special exercises. Talk to your healthcare provider about these therapies and best treatment plan for you.

Home care

You can help keep the condition from getting worse. Follow all instructions you have been given. Do your exercises and wear your compression garments as recommended. Also, care for yourself as instructed. 

  • Small skin injuries like a cut, burn, or insect bite are more likely to cause a skin infection. Take special care to avoid injury. If you have any signs of infection, call your healthcare provider right away.

  • Take care of your skin and nails. Moisturize dry skin. Wear protective gloves when doing chores such as gardening. 

  • Don't wear tight clothing or jewelry on the affected arm or leg. Avoid carrying bags or other weight on the affected arm.

  • Save with an electric razor instead of a razor blade.

  • If at all possible, don’t have blood pressure taken, get injections, or have blood drawn in the affected arm.

  • If a leg is involved, don’t cross your legs when sitting. Don't go barefoot.

  • Avoid hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas.

If you are at risk for lymphedema but have not developed it, these tips can help also help prevent it. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

Lymphedema can change the appearance of your body. This can be emotionally difficult to adjust to. You may benefit from a support group where practical advice and emotional support is offered. Individual counseling is another option.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Swelling worsens

  • Rash, blistering, or other skin changes on the affected limb

  • Area of skin becomes red, painful, or warm to the touch

  • A wound increases in pain, becomes warm, drains pus, or radiates red streaks

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider