What to Do for Lymphedema in the Arms

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Senior woman using pressure pump for lymphedema in arm

In the lymphatic system, lymph fluid collects harmful substances and flushes them out of your body. When this lymph fluid becomes blocked, it can cause lymphedema—abnormal swelling that most often occurs in the arms or legs. Lymphedema can also occur in other places where lymph nodes are located, such as the neck or breasts. This condition can’t be cured, but there are options to treat lymphedema in the arms and legs.

Lymphedema Causes

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by improper development of the lymph system. It is a rare inherited condition that can begin in infancy, adolescence, or in later adulthood. More common is secondary lymphedema, which can occur when another disease or incident damages your lymph nodes or vessels. 

Secondary lymphedema can be caused by:

  • Traumatic injury: A sports injury or deep cut can damage the lymph system.

  • Surgery: Surgical removal of lymph nodes or vessels or any surgery that unintentionally disrupts the lymph drainage system can cause lymphedema. Breast cancer patients are likely to have lymph nodes removed from their underarm to check on whether the cancer has spread. Damage to the area can cause lymphedema in the arm.

  • Cancer or cancer treatment: A large tumor can block lymph fluid from draining properly and cause lymphedema. Radiation to treat cancer can cause scarring and create inflammation that affects the lymph system.

  • Lymph node infection: An infection or parasite can block lymph fluid, but this is rare in the United States.

Lymphedema Symptoms

You might notice other symptoms of lymphedema in the arms before you see swelling, such as your arm feeling heavy, full or tight. Sometimes a shirt sleeve might feel too snug, or a ring or bracelet might be tight, even though you haven’t gained weight. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms of lymphedema in your arms, talk with your doctor right away to discuss your treatment options.

Lymphedema Treatment for the Arm

There are many treatment options for lymphedema in the arm, both surgical and nonsurgical. Your doctor may want to use a combination of treatments. If lymphedema is advanced and nonsurgical treatments aren’t working, surgery may be necessary to improve fluid drainage.

Early-stage lymphedema can often be controlled without surgery. While there is no cure for chronic lymphedema, treatment can help. These include:

  • Exercise: Lymphedema arm exercises can help loosen tissues and get lymph fluid moving again. These are specific exercises your doctor can teach you.

  • Compression: Special bandages or compression garments treat lymphedema by helping to get fluid moving again and prevent more fluid buildup. People with lymphedema may wear a sleeve for their arm to keep constant pressure on the area.

  • Pneumatic pump: A pneumatic pump for the arm looks like a long-sleeve blood pressure cuff and treats lymphedema by simulating lymph fluid flowing through the body. A lymphedema pump is rarely used as a stand-alone treatment.

  • Massage: Lymphedema massage can accomplish two things. It gets fluid flowing in the right direction as well as softening scar tissue and other tightness that may be restricting lymph fluid movement.

Lymphedema Prevention

If you’ve already had surgery to remove lymph nodes in your armpit, you’re at a higher risk of developing lymphedema in the arm. However, there are steps you can take to lower the chance of developing lymphedema, such as:

  • Clean and moisturize your arm every day.

  • Take extra care to avoid cuts and burns—even minor ones—on your hands and arms, including sunburns.

  • If you get a cut, clean it thoroughly, use an antibacterial ointment, and apply a bandage to prevent infection.

  • Eat a healthy diet low in sodium.

  • Avoid saunas or other extreme temperatures, such as heat or cold packs.

  • Avoid overuse injuries to your arm, even caused by something as simple as vigorous scrubbing.

  • If you must carry a heavy item, use your other arm if possible. Consider using a wheeled cart to carry the item.

  • Don’t have blood drawn or your blood pressure taken from the affected arm.

If you develop lymphedema in the arm after surgery or injury, talk with your doctor about your best treatment options. It’s important to begin treatment as soon as possible to prevent the condition from getting worse and causing irreversible problems with skin thickening and scarring. Being prepared with a plan will help you manage the condition and continue living a healthy life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 16
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