Lymphedema is a condition in which fluid collects in the arm, causing it to swell. It may affect one arm or leg, but sometimes it can can also involve both arms or both legs. Some 15% to 20% of breast cancer patients develop lymphedema after treatment, usually as a result of treatment to the lymph nodes in the armpit. Lymphedema often develops within a year or two after surgery, though the risk for developing it never disappears.

The swelling occurs when a blockage in your lymphatic system prevents the lymph fluid in your arm or leg from draining. As the fluid accumulates, the swelling continues. Recent studies suggest, however, that the growing use of the less invasive sentinel node biopsy may lead to lower rates of lymphedema after treatment.

Your lymphatic system is crucial to keeping your body healthy. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body, collecting bacteria, viruses and waste products. These substances are carried through your lymph vessels, which lead to lymph nodes. The wastes are then filtered out by lymphocytes — infection-fighting cells that live in your lymph nodes — and ultimately flushed from your body. No cure for lymphedema exists. But lymphedema can be controlled. Controlling lymphedema involves diligent care of your affected limb.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Swelling that ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your limb to extreme swelling that can make it impossible to use the affected arm or leg.
  • 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.

Causes of lymphedema

Any condition or procedure that damages the lymph nodes or lymph vessels can cause lymphedema. Causes can include surgery, radiation treatment, cancel cells that block lymphatic vessels, infection and injury.

Treatment options

Lymphedema cannot be cured. Treatment for lymphedema focuses on minimizing the swelling and controlling the pain, including exercises, massage, pneumatic compression, compression garments or surgery.

If you’re at risk of developing secondary lymphedema, you can take measures to help prevent it. If you’ve had or are going to have cancer surgery, ask your doctor whether your particular procedure will involve your lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Ask if your radiation treatment will be aimed at any of your lymph nodes, so you will be aware of the possible risks.

How to lower your risk of lymphedema

  • Protect your arm or leg. Avoid any injury to your affected limb. Cuts, scrapes and burns can all invite infection, which can cause lymphedema. If possible, avoid medical procedures, such as blood draws and vaccinations, in your affected limb.
  • Rest your arm or leg while recovering. After cancer treatment, avoid heavy activity with that limb. Early exercise and stretching are encouraged, but avoid strenuous activity until you’ve recovered from surgery or radiation. Here are some ideas on suitable exercises and how to do them.
  • Avoid heat on your arm or leg. Don’t apply heat, such as with a heating pad, to your affected limb.
  • Elevate your arm or leg. When you get a chance, elevate your affected limb.
  • Avoid tight clothing. Avoid anything that could constrict your arm or leg, such as tight fitting clothing and, in the case of your arm, blood pressure readings. Ask that your blood pressure be taken in your other arm.
  • Keep your arm or leg clean. Make skin care and nail care high priorities. Inspect the skin on your arm or leg every day, keeping watch for changes or breaks in your skin that could lead to infection.