What to Do for Lymphedema in the Legs

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Close-up of unseen woman's feet in wheelchair with lymphedema

Lymph fluid is a protein-rich fluid that flushes harmful substances out of the body. This fluid flows through lymph vessels and nodes—all part of the lymphatic system. But lymph fluid can become blocked and develop into abnormal swelling when the fluid doesn’t drain properly. This condition is called lymphedema, which commonly occurs in the legs but can develop anywhere that lymph nodes and vessels are located. Chronic lymphedema in the legs has no cure, but treatment can help.

Lymphedema Causes

Lymphedema can be inherited, which is called primary lymphedema. This condition can begin in infancy, adolescence or adulthood, but primary lymphedema is rare. Secondary lymphedema is more common and can be caused by anything that damages your lymph nodes and vessels. Common causes of secondary lymphedema include:

  • Injury: A traumatic sports injury or a deep cut can damage lymph nodes and vessels and increase the risk of lymphedema. Surgical injury or removal of lymph nodes can also cause lymphedema in the legs.

  • Cancer: A large tumor can inhibit proper drainage of lymph fluid and cause swelling.

  • Radiation treatment: Treating cancer with radiation can result in scarring or inflammation that can damage the lymphatic system.

  • Infection in the lymph nodes: This can block the flow of lymph fluid, but it is rare.

Lymphedema Symptoms

Swelling is a sign of lymphedema, but it might not be the first symptom you notice. Another symptom of lymphedema in the legs is the limb feeling heavy, full or tight. You might notice one of your pant legs feels constricting, even if you haven’t gained any weight, or you might see some swelling in your toes. Achiness or loss of range of motion may also indicate you have lymphedema. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms of lymphedema in your legs, talk with your doctor. It’s best to begin treatment as soon as possible to prevent the condition from worsening and causing permanent damage.

Lymphedema Treatment for the Leg

There are both surgical and nonsurgical treatments for lymphedema in the leg. Oftentimes, doctors use a combination of treatments to reduce symptoms and prevent the condition from getting worse. If you have advanced-stage lymphedema and nonsurgical treatments aren’t helping, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove tissues and get lymph fluid flowing again. However, early-stage lymphedema can usually be treated successfully without surgery. 

Nonsurgical treatments for lymphedema in the legs include: 

  • Wrap: A bandage or compression garment can help reduce swelling and get lymph fluid moving back up from your legs toward your heart. People with lymphedema may wrap their leg with a bandage or wear compression stockings during waking hours, particularly during exercise. It’s also a good idea to use compression at night, too, if possible.

  • Exercise: Specific, gentle lymphedema exercises for the legs can help improve lymph fluid drainage. A lymphedema therapist can teach you how to do these exercises.

  • Pneumatic pump: A pneumatic pump for the legs is similar to a long blood pressure cuff that fits over the entire leg and applies pressure in waves up the leg. The pressure encourages fluid to flow back toward the heart. A lymphedema pump is most often used in combination with another treatment, rather than alone.

  • Massage: Lymphedema massage can encourage lymph drainage and loosen any soft tissue tightness that may be contributing to fluid blockage.

Lymphedema Prevention

You can take steps to lower your risk of developing lymphedema in your legs or anywhere else, particularly if you’ve had surgery to remove lymph nodes. 

Take these steps:

  • Gently clean and thoroughly dry your legs and feet every day. Use lotion to keep your skin moisturized.

  • Avoid any type of cut, scrape or burn, which can lead to infection. Use sunscreen and bug spray. Don’t walk around barefoot.

  • If you do have an injury, treat it right away—clean the area, use antibacterial ointment, and apply a bandage. Don’t use a compression wrap until cuts have healed.

  • Reduce your risk of nicks by using an electric shaver rather than a razor blade.

  • Keep your leg elevated at night if possible.

  • Avoid overuse injuries to your leg.

  • Don’t use saunas, heating pads or ice packs on the affected leg.

If you suspect you may have lymphedema, talk to your doctor right away to determine a diagnosis. It’s important to begin lymphedema treatment as soon as possible to prevent the condition from worsening. Untreated lymphedema can lead to skin thickening and scarring, which can be permanent. Figuring out a treatment plan and lifestyle adjustments can help you move forward and live well.

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