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Lymphedema

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:

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.

Keep blood from pooling in the affected 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.)