Treating and managing lymphoedema

It is possible to improve and treat lymphoedema using various techniques. Learning to manage lymphoedema yourself is a big part of the treatment. Your lymphoedema specialist will explain what you can do to reduce swelling and discomfort, and to avoid further build-up of lymph fluid. This includes:

  • skin care
  • using compression garments
  • exercising and keeping active
  • using specialised massage techniques
  • positioning and moving your limb
  • deep breathing.

Managing lymphoedema can seem overwhelming at first, but gradually you’ll find you can build it into your everyday routine. Some treatments may need to be done every day. It may take a few weeks or months to notice real improvements, but following treatment, the area should become less swollen, more comfortable and easier to move.

Occasionally, a compression pump with an inflatable sleeve can be used to treat lymphoedema. Other rarer forms of treatment include lymphoedema taping, surgery and laser therapy. Some of these techniques are new and research still needs to be done to see how effective they are. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you more.

Treating lymphoedema

Treatment for lymphoedema aims to reduce and control swelling, relieve discomfort, and prevent more build-up of fluid. It aims to encourage other healthy parts of the lymphatic system to be more effective and prevent further problems.

Following treatment, the affected limb or area should become less swollen, be easier to move, and feel more comfortable.

Sometimes it may take several weeks or months before you notice any real improvement.

Managing lymphoedema

Learning how to manage lymphoedema yourself is the main part of the treatment. At first it may seem overwhelming and feel unfair that you have all this to deal with. It’s normal to have these difficult feelings.

After you have been assessed by your lymphoedema specialist, they will discuss the best way to manage the lymphoedema. They will explain, and show you, what you can do for yourself. This is likely to involve a combination of skin care, exercises, a simple form of skin massage and wearing a compression garment. Some of the treatments may need to be done every day to give the best results.

Gradually you can build your lymphoedema care into your daily routine. Family and friends often want to help and there may be practical things they can do. They could help with heavy lifting or carrying, or help you with your compression garment or simple skin massage. Taking good care of yourself is also important.

Treatment for lymphoedema affecting an arm or leg involves:

  • skin care to prevent injury and infection
  • positioning and moving your limb to help drain fluid
  • exercising and keeping active to improve the flow of lymph
  • daily deep-breathing exercises
  • for some people, using compression garments such as sleeves, stockings, special bras, or compression bandages
  • in some situations, specialised massage, called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), or self-massage, called simple lymphatic drainage (SLD), to help drain fluid.

We also have information about how lymphoedema in the breast or chest, the head or neck, or the genitals is treated.

I have a wonderful lymphoedema nurse who provided me with massage instructions and advice on support garments. I try to do the massage most days.


Managing Lymphoedema

Macmillan university teacher Rianne Davis explains how to manage lymphoedema.

About our cancer information videos

Managing Lymphoedema

Macmillan university teacher Rianne Davis explains how to manage lymphoedema.

About our cancer information videos

Other treatments

Sometimes, other treatments may be used in combination with existing ones. Some of the following treatments are new and more research is needed to find out how effective they are in treating lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist will know how helpful these treatments might be for you and where they are available.

Lymphoedema taping

This is a special taping technique originally developed to treat sports injuries. More recently it has been used to treat lymphoedema.

This works by applying a special, stretchy tape to the skin. The tape gently lifts the top layer of skin, to allow the lymph fluid closest to the surface of the skin to flow more easily. The tape is water resistant and can be worn for several days at a time. It’s used in areas where it’s difficult to apply compression.

The tape is not available on prescription so you will need to buy it yourself. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you whether this technique is helpful in your situation and where to buy the tape from.


This is rarely used to treat lymphoedema. It’s sometimes used to reduce swelling around the face or genital areas or to reduce the size of an affected limb by removing skin and some of the tissue underneath.

Highly specialised surgical techniques are sometimes also used. They involve transplanting lymph nodes or connecting the lymphatic system to nearby veins to drain the affected area. These are new treatments in the UK and not widely available.

Liposuction is sometimes used in advanced, more complex cases of lymphoedema. It involves surgically removing extra fatty tissue through several small cuts in the skin using a vacuum. After the operation, a compression bandage is applied to the affected limb and it should be kept elevated. After a couple of weeks, the bandages are replaced by compression garments. You will need to continue to wear the garment long-term to prevent an increase in the size of the limb.

Laser therapy

This treatment uses a low-level laser light to target cells along the lymphatic channels. It aims to improve the flow of lymph fluid, soften hard tissue, reduce swelling and prevent it from worsening. Research is being done to find out more about its possible benefits, so at the moment it is not widely available.

Compression pumps

Occasionally, compression pumps are used to treat lymphoedema of the arm or leg. If your specialist recommends this, you may be shown how to use one at home. It may be possible to borrow a pump from your local hospital as they’re expensive to buy – your lymphoedema specialist can give you more information.

The pump uses electricity from the mains, and is made up of a power unit and an inflatable sleeve, which you put on your arm or leg. Various sizes of sleeve are available. When you switch it on, the sleeve will gradually pump up for a few minutes, then deflate for a few minutes. Your lymphoedema specialist will advise you which pressure to use. Don’t use higher pressures than advised as this could make the swelling worse.

Before you use the pump, it’s important to carry out simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) or manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) to your body (trunk) and at the top of the affected limb. This is to drain lymph from these areas before the pump moves more fluid out of your affected limb.

Tips for using a pump

  • Don’t use the pump if you have an infection or inflammation in the affected limb.
  • Always remove your compression garment before using the pump, but put it back on as soon as you’ve finished.
  • When using the pump, support your arm on the arm of your chair, or rest your leg up on a sofa or bed. This will help with drainage.
  • If you feel pain, stop immediately and consult your doctor.
  • Watch for any increase in swelling or thickening at the top of the limb where the pump sleeve stops. If this happens, ask for advice.