June 11, 2008 by  
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It is a swelling or ‘edema’ caused by a build up of fluid in the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is what is seen in cancer patients after surgery to remove or dissect the lymph nodes in the arm, groin or pelvis. Normally the lymphatic system and the fluid of this system move to flight infection. Once the lymph nodes are removed fluid collects in the spaces between cell tissues. The buildup of fluid causes not only swelling but inflammation, pain and thickening of the skin in the area affected.

Symptoms of Lymphedema per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Swelling of part of your arm or your entire arm or leg, including your fingers or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness in your arm or leg
  • Restricted range of motion in your arm or leg
  • Aching or discomfort in your arm or leg
  • Recurring infections in your affected limb
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin on your arm or leg

Treatment of Lymphedema:

Simple lymphedema can be relieved by elevating the extremity, utilizing range of motion exercises, stretching and your doctor may suggest an anti-inflammatory medication.

Chronic lymphedema is a more serious complication and may progress to a life threatening situation. Unresolved chronic lymphedema may become irreversible or may develop into a tumor of the lymph system.

Managing Chronic Lymphedema:

  • Medication therapy may include pain relievers and diuretics
  • Compression garments to exert pressure on the extremity
  • Pressure devices such as a pneumatic pump
  • Avoid the use of razors
  • Use good skin care to avoid cuts, cracks, and sores
  • Measure the extremity daily
  • Avoid weight gain which can contribute to swelling
  • Be aware your sensation to heat and cold will be diminished, avoid ice packs, heating packs, saunas or hot tubs
  • Don’t wear constrictive clothing
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet so medical personnel will not use an affected arm for blood pressure checks or lab draws
  • Change position often


The National Lymphedema Network: “an internationally recognized non-profit organization founded in 1988 to provide education and guidance to lymphedema patients, health care professionals and the general public by disseminating information on the prevention and management of primary and secondary lymphedema.”

NLN also provides financial assistance with compression garments through the Marilyn Westbrook Garment Fund and medical alert bracelets.

Battling Books:

Living Well With Lymphedema by Ann B. Ehrlich, Alma Vinje-Harrewijn, and Elizabeth J. McMahon (2005)

Lymphedema: A Breast Cancer Patient’s Guide to Prevention and Healing by Jeannie Burt and Gwen White (2005)

Voices of Lymphedema: stories, advice and inspiration from patients and therapists by Calina Burns, Ann B. Ehrlich, and Elizabeth J. McMahon (2007)

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.

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