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Lymphedema is caused by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid and proteins in body tissues that often affects breast cancer patients. One in 10 breast cancer survivors contract lymphedema, although it has not been determined why some people contract it and others don’t. The condition can appear days, weeks, months or even years after the initial surgery. It most frequently results in swelling of the arms and legs, although it can appear on other parts of the body. Symptoms include:

  • Unusual tightness of the skin
  • Loss of flexibility in the hands, ankles and wrists
  • Clothing no longer fits properly in localized areas
  • Jewelry is suddenly unusually tight

There are two types of Lymphedema

  • Primary lymphedema is present in those born with lymphatic vessels that are missing or impaired.
  • Secondary lymphedema can be caused when the lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes removed. This includes surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or such traumatic events as a fracture, burn or wounds.

Diagnosis & Treatment Options

Treatment for lymphedema depends on its cause and includes wearing compression garments such as stockings or sleeves, proper diet and skin care, and fluid drainage.



Elevating an arm or leg that has swelling can help ease the drainage of lymph fluid from the affected limb. Whenever possible, rest a swollen arm or leg on a comfortable surface, above the level of your heart. Don't put pressure on your armpit or groin area, and don't hold a limb up without support for very long since this can increase swelling.


Gentle exercise can help reduce swelling. The use of muscles during exercise naturally helps lymph fluid to circulate, which can reduce swelling. But exercise also increases blood flow to the muscles being used, which can increase the amount of lymph fluid present. If you have swelling, it is important to properly bandage an affected limb before exercising. Ask your doctor how to use a bandage for this purpose and what exercises are appropriate for your condition.