Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2017. | Last updated: August 2020
Lymphedema refers to the buildup or collection of fluid in limbs that causes swelling, especially after removal of the lymph nodes. This can be due to surgical removal, or radiation treatment in response to cancer, among other sources.
Depending on where your skin cancer is located, and the kind of treatment you may have had, lymphedema may be something to watch for. Your doctor will be able to determine if you are at risk for lymphedema; however, common signs to watch for include a feeling of fullness or swelling in your arms or legs. You may also notice bracelets, rings, watches, and other articles of clothing or accessories that suddenly feel too tight, swelling, and a loss of flexibility in wrists, hands, and ankles.
Lymphedema and quality of life
Not only can preventing or treating lymphedema aid in physical symptoms, but it can also impact your quality of life. Several studies have investigated this link, and many suggest there is an association between the presence and severity of lymphedema and a decrease in life quality.
This quality of life decline can come in the form of losing the strength, function, flexibility, or range of motion of a limb, as well as the inability to perform at work. Other areas of quality of life that can be impacted include the ability to participate in certain activities, wear certain clothing, experience quality sleep, and sexual dysfunction.
Lymphedema can also impact mental or emotional aspects of our lives, including causing a disturbance of body image, feelings of anxiety, depression, and worry, as well as promote social avoidance.1 While not everyone experiences these with lymphedema, quality of life impacts are possible, and therefore, should be considered when deciding how or if you want to manage your lymphedema.
How to manage your lymphedema
While there are many ways to manage lymphedema, below is a list of some of the most common, and simple ways to control fluid buildup and swelling.2,3
Keep skin healthy
When the lymphatic system is draining properly, it’s removing and filtering fluid to search for invading particles, bacteria, or viruses to eliminate. When the lymph fluid is not moving properly, infection risk can be high, and cause additional fluid to accumulate. You can keep your skin healthy by washing daily with mild soap and water, and moisturizing to keep skin from cracking. Dry or cracking skin can be more susceptible to infection. Additionally, protecting your skin from trauma or harm can be key.
Wearing sunscreen to prevent burns, insect repellent to avoid bug bites, gloves or finger protectors when performing activities that could cause cuts, such as gardening or sewing, and using electric razors instead of regular blade razors can decrease your risk of scrapes, cuts, and burns that could draw more fluid to your limbs. It’s also important not to have blood drawn, or blood pressure cuff readings on the limb affected, and to pay attention to the fingernail and toenail care as well.
Certain exercises can help draw fluid away from the limbs, while others can increase blood flow and fluid buildup. It’s important to work with your doctor or physical therapist to come up with an exercise regimen designed for your body and your needs. The right kinds of activity can aid in pulling fluid away from your affected limbs.
Always talk to your doctor when it comes to vigorous activity, however, basic moving can reduce swelling. This may be as simple as moving your legs around while sitting, and trying not to cross them for too long, or at all. It can also mean getting up to walk a few feet every 30 minutes when you’re sitting or lying down.
Some physical therapists and masseuses are specially trained in lymphedema care. These specialists, along with your doctor, can provide you with massages designed to increase the movement of fluid and aid in proper drainage.
Avoid tight-fitting clothing
Clothing or accessories that are too tight can act as a tourniquet and cause swelling. Wearing loose clothing, especially on or around any affected limbs, can help prevent fluid buildup. Your doctor may instruct you to wear a compression garment, especially if you’re traveling by plane in the near future, however, you should only wear these as instructed.
Avoid extreme temperatures
Very hot or very cold temperatures can affect the way your body moves fluid, so it’s better to avoid these when possible. That includes using saunas, hot tubs, or heating pads.
Do your due diligence
Keep an eye out for any signs of infection, cuts, or scrapes on your body that could lead to fluid buildup. Contact your doctor when you suspect an issue, and always keep an open line of communication with your provider if you start to notice other non-visible symptoms, such as feelings of fullness and heaviness in the limbs, with or without noticeable swelling. Also, investing in a medical alert bracelet that tells any provider you have lymphedema and where can help instruct others on the best way to treat you in the case of an emergency.
Pain can often accompany lymphedema and can be managed in a variety of ways, with the help of your physician. This can include using pain medications, TENS therapy (transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation), or relaxation techniques, among other methods.