Treatment for Lymphedema

There is no cure for lymphedema. The treatment for lymphedema depends on the cause and the stage of the illness. Treatment involves care for your health and focuses on reducing the swelling and managing the pain. If the lymphedema is caused by an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed to fight the infection. Other treatments for lymphedema include:

  • Exercises: Light exercises involving movement of the affected limb can help to drain the lymphatic fluid out of the limb and reduce the swelling. These exercises are not strenuous and focus on the gentle expansion and contraction of the arm or leg muscles. Your doctor or therapist will show you which exercises can help.
  • Bandaging the Affected Limb: Bandaging the entire limb will encourage the lymphatic fluid to flow out of the affected limb, back towards the torso. The bandages should be tied tightest around the fingers or toes and more loosely as you proceed further up the limb. Your doctor or therapist can show you the correct way to wrap the limb.
  • Massage: Manual lymph drainage is a special massage technique that can drain the lymphatic liquid out of the affected arm or leg. It involves the use of special hand strokes on the affected limb that gently moves the lymphatic fluid towards healthy lymph nodes where it can drain. This technique is not used in cases of skin infection, cancer, blood clots or congestive heart failure. It should also not be used on parts of the body that have received radiation therapy.     
  • Pneumatic Compression: In this technique, an inflatable sleeve is placed over the affected limb. The sleeve is attached to a pump which intermittently inflates it and puts pressure on the limb. This causes the lymphatic fluid to slowly drain away from the limb, reducing the swelling in the affected limb.
  • Compression Garments: These are long sleeves or stockings that apply pressure to the affected limb and encourage the lymphatic fluid to drain away. Compression garments are usually suggested after the doctor has reduced swelling in the affected limb using other measures and can help prevent the affected limb from swelling up again. Your doctor or therapist will tell you where these kinds of garments can be obtained. Some people require custom made compression garments.

These therapies are frequently combined and are collectively known as complete decongestive therapy (CDT). CDT is not usually recommended for people with high blood pressure, paralysis, diabetes, blood clots, acute infections or heart failure.

Severe lymphedema may also require surgery to remove excess tissue from the arm or leg. This may reduce swelling but is not a cure for lymphedema.