Lymphedema Treatments


Today there are more options than ever for treating lymphedema, and most have demonstrated some effectiveness in research studies. Most studies done so far have looked at treatment plans that use a combination of approaches. More research is needed to say for sure which individual treatments are most effective, in what combinations, and in which situations. In the meantime, you and your lymphedema therapist have several options to consider.

Treatments such as sleeves, bandages, and pumps help lymph flow out of the arm, hand, trunk, or other body part affected by lymphedema. Others involve making lifestyle changes — such as skin protection, exercise, and losing weight — that are shown to help the lymphatic system. The degree, intensity, and length of your treatments will depend on how severe your lymphedema is. For example, mild lymphedema with minor swelling typically requires less treatment than a later-stage lymphedema with obvious swelling and fibrosis (scarring of the soft tissue). Even if your lymphedema is more advanced, there are good options for getting the swelling down and keeping it down.

Two common questions you may be wondering about are:

  • Can lymphedema be cured? Stage 1 or mild lymphedema can be reversed, because there’s no damage to the soft tissue yet. But many experts don’t think you can say it’s “cured” because even stage 1 puts you at risk for future episodes or worsening lymphedema. Still, there are many people who have mild lymphedema that goes away with treatment and never becomes a major problem. For others, the condition does worsen. The later stages of lymphedema often can’t be completely reversed because the tissue under the skin has been damaged. However, the appearance and feeling of the hand, arm, chest, or other body part can be improved with treatment.
  • Will I have to be in treatment for the rest of my life? Again, that really depends on the stage of the lymphedema and how well it responds to treatment. At one end of the spectrum are people who experience milder symptoms that flare up occasionally and require periodic treatment. At the other end are people with more severe and/or persistent symptoms that require active treatment for the rest of their lives. Most people fall somewhere in between. And for most, lymphedema tends to be a dynamic condition, meaning that it changes over time. You and your lymphedema therapist will come to understand how your body responds to treatment and what makes the most sense for you. Whether or not you need active treatment for the rest of your life, you’ll always need to be aware of your risk for lymphedema. (See Reducing Risk of Lymphedema and Lymphedema Flare-Ups for more information.)

In this section of Breastcancer.org, you can read more about the treatments available for lymphedema. Your plan is likely to include some combination of these treatments. First, though, we offer some guidance about factors that may influence your treatment plan.

Expert Quote

"The reality is that once you have lymphedema, it has to be seen as a chronic problem. Even if the arm goes back to feeling and looking normal, it needs to remain an ongoing concern."

-- Marisa Weiss, M.D., president and founder, Breastcancer.org

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