10 Tips for Managing Lymphedema

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Lorna Collier on March 9, 2021
  • Close-up of Caucasian woman's swollen feet and ankles
    Lymphedema Management and Lifestyle Tips
    Up to 10 million Americans have lymphedema, a chronic condition in which lymph fluid doesn’t flow properly through the body, but instead builds up, causing swelling and pain. Often this occurs in arms or legs. Cancer treatment survivors are at special risk, especially those with breast cancer. If not managed properly, lymphedema can result in increased swelling, infections, slower wound healing, and stiff or sore joints. If you have lymphedema, management can be key to preventing these unwanted complications. Your condition can’t be cured, but you can reduce symptoms and feel better by following certain guidelines.
  • Seal in Moisture
    1. Use lotion to prevent skin infections.
    Lymphedema can cause your skin to become thick and dry. It’s important to moisturize your skin to prevent cracking, which can provide an entryway for infection. Use ointments, such as Vaseline, creams or lotions daily, especially at night, which gives moisturizers longer to work. Your lymphedema therapist or dermatologist can suggest specific products for you. Use moisturizing soaps to clean skin daily. Also, check your skin every day for any cracks or cuts. Small cuts should be treated with antibiotic cream and bandaged.
  • Woman gardening
    2. Wear gloves when gardening or cooking.
    A scratch from a branch while outside working in the yard can result in a potentially dangerous skin infection—something to avoid if you have lymphedema. That doesn’t mean giving up gardening. Instead, manage the risk of skin trauma by wearing gloves. Similarly, wear gloves when cooking to avoid knife cuts or other injuries; opt for an electric shaver rather than razor blades while shaving; and use a thimble while sewing.
  • Man exercising in the house
    3. Take it easy when exercising.
    Exercise can help ease your symptoms by causing excess fluid to drain, which will reduce swelling. Focus on light exercise, with gentle contractions of the muscles in your affected limb, rather than strenuous workouts that leave you tired and can aggravate your lymphedema. A certified lymphedema therapist can recommend an exercise program for you to avoid this happening. One tip: Take it slow and easy during the first few weeks of a new routine, as your body adjusts to becoming progressively more active. Aim for daily exercise, which can help both your lymphedema and your overall health.
  • Compression Stockings
    4. Use properly fitted compression garments.
    Snug-fitting compression stockings and sleeves can help reduce lymphedema swelling in affected areas of your body. Plus, once the fluid is pushed out, compression garments can help keep it from returning. However, these garments can be hard to get on and off—so hard that tools like “donners” exist to help with this task. It will get easier the more you do it. Some compression garments come with zippers or Velcro closures, which can be helpful. Any compression gear you wear should be properly fitted, as too much or too little compression can cause problems.
  • well-dressed, smiling young woman with look of confidence sitting on contemporary chair in office building
    5. Don’t cross your legs when sitting.
    When you have lymphedema, you need to avoid further blocking the flow of fluids through your body, since this is already impaired by your condition. This means not crossing your legs while sitting. Also, change your sitting position at least every 30 minutes. Other tips to avoid blocking fluid flow include not wearing tight jewelry, clothes or stockings with tight elastic bands. If you have lymphedema in your arm, don’t carry your purse on this arm. Also avoid having blood pressure taken on your swollen arm.
  • nurse swabbing patient's leg with alcohol before administering a shot
    6. Get your COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccinations in your thigh.
    The arm is one of the most common sites for lymphedema to develop. Some people develop lymphedema in both arms (for example, women who have had bilateral mastectomies). People with lymphedema in the arm or arms are often advised to avoid needles in the affected area, including blood draws, flu shots, or other vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people with lymphedema in both arms can get their COVID-19 vaccine in their thigh instead. Check with your doctor to see if this is where you should get your vaccine.
  • Senior woman using pressure pump for lymphedema in arm
    7. Consider using a special lymphedema pump.
    One way to keep lymphatic fluid from building up in your arm or leg is to use a lymphedema pump. This is a pump connected to a compression sleeve that wraps around your affected limb. The sleeve inflates and deflates in a timed cycle, which applies pressure on and off. This pumping action can help push fluid through your lymphatic system. A lymphedema specialist should supervise and train you how to use a lymphedema pump, because too much pressure could damage the lymph vessels near your skin’s surface.
  • senior woman getting her legs massaged by a massage therapist
    8. Lymphedema massage therapy can help—but use caution.
    Massage therapy for lymphedema uses a light touch to help push lymphatic fluid out of your swollen arms, legs or other affected body parts. A therapist with lymphedema experience should perform the first session, then train you how to perform it on yourself. Done correctly, it can help and won’t cause medical problems. But, do not do it if you have a skin infection, open wounds or bruises, blood clots (such as deep vein thrombosis), skin that’s sensitive following radiation therapy, malignant tumors, acute inflammation, or major heart problems.
  • Kids breakfast porridge
    9. Limit sugar and sodium in your lymphedema diet.
    It’s important to stay away from added sugars and sodium, both of which can contribute to fluid retention and aggravate your lymphedema symptoms. In place of sugary, processed foods, try fresh fruits to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you crave salt, consider yogurt, pickles or kimchi, which have the savory taste you yearn, but without unhealthy amounts of sodium. Eating a balanced diet, with a nutritious balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, can also help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight—another key to managing lymphedema.
  • Video meeting on desktop screen
    10. Get emotional support from others with lymphedema.
    Managing lymphedema can be emotionally trying. Talking to other people who have the same lifelong condition as you do can be very helpful, especially when you are feeling stressed out, frustrated, angry or depressed. In many communities, support groups meet regularly. You can also find online message boards and chat rooms through social media, such as Facebook. Or, check with your healthcare provider, lymphedema therapist, or associations, such as the National Lymphedema Network to find additional support resources.
10 Tips for Managing Lymphedema | Lymphedema Management & Lifestyle

About The Author

Lorna Collier has been reporting on health topics—especially mental health and women’s health—as well as technology and education for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News, CNN.com, the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, and many others. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
  1. Skin Care For People With Lymphoedema. The Lymphoedema Support Network. https://www.woodlandshospice.org/images/pictures/family-support/lymphodema/skincare-lymphoedema.pdf
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  3. Lymphatic Drainage Massage Technique. Real Bodywork. https://www.realbodywork.com/articles/lymphatic-drainage-massage/
  4. NLN Highlight on COVID-19 Vaccination Injection Site. National Lymphedema Network. https://lymphnet.org
  5. Lymphedema. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lymphedema/symptoms-causes/syc-20374682
  6. What Is Lymphedema? Lymphatic Education & Research Network. https://lymphaticnetwork.org/living-with-lymphedema/lymphedema/
  7. 10 Things To Know About Compression Garments For Lymphedema (LE). Lymphatic Education & Research Network. http://lymphaticnetwork.org/documents/LERN_Ten_Things_Compression_Flyer.pdf
  8. Lymphedema (PDQ) – Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/lymphedema/lymphedema-pdq#_22

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Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.