16 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Lymphedema

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Start doing the exercises your doctor, nurse, or physical therapist showed you how to do. This may be 1 day to 1 week after surgery, depending on the instructions you were given. These exercises will help you regain your shoulder and arm range of motion. Range of motion usually returns in about 4 to 6 weeks.

Exercise your arm holding it higher than your heart by opening and closing your hand 15 to 25 times. Try to do this 3 or 4 times a day. This exercise helps push lymph fluid out of the arm through the lymph vessels that are still there.

Try to avoid infection and burns. If you have an infection or burn, your body makes extra fluid to fight it. If you've had lymph nodes removed, it can be harder for your body to transport this extra fluid and this can cause lymphedema. Taking good care of your skin and practicing good hygiene can help reduce your risk of lymphedema by avoiding infection or a burn.

If possible, have blood drawn, injections, IVs, and vaccinations given in your unaffected arm. You also can have vaccinations or flu shots given in another area on your body, such as your hip. Tell your doctor or nurse that you're at risk for lymphedema.

Moisturize your hands and cuticles regularly with lotion or cream. Push your cuticles back with a stick rather than cutting them with scissors. Avoid professional manicures.

Keep your hand and arm clean, but don't use harsh soaps that can dry out your skin. Wash and protect any cuts, scrapes, insect bites, or hangnails. Use antibacterial cream or ointment on any open cuts or sores and cover them with a bandage.

Wear protective gloves when do you household chores such as washing dishes, general cleaning, or yard work.

Use an electric shaver instead of a razor on your affected arm or armpit.

Use a thimble when you sew to avoid pricking yourself.

Protect your arm from sunburn with sunscreen. Use a product with a minimum SPF of 15.

Wear oven mitts when handling hot foods.

Avoid extreme hot- to cold-water temperature changes when you bathe or wash dishes.

Don't use heating pads or hot compresses on the arm, neck, shoulder, or back on the affected side. Also, be cautious of other heat-producing treatments provided by physical, occupational, or massage therapists, such as ultrasound, whirlpool, fluidotherapy, or deep tissue massage. Heat and vigorous massage encourage the body to send extra fluid into the compromised area.

Avoid tight clothes and jewelry that restrain your movement.

Don't carry heavy objects with your at-risk arm, especially with the arm hanging downward. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist about how to gradually increase the amount of weight you are able to lift. A physical therapist may start you on a weight-training program using 1- to 2-pound weights, slowly increasing the weight over time as your arm is able to handle it.

Have your blood pressure taken on the unaffected arm. If both arms are affected, have your blood pressure taken on your thigh. Tell your healthcare provider that you're at risk for lymphedema.

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Learn more in our Lymphedema section.

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