Other ways of 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 lymhoedema 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 lymhoedema. Other rarer forms of treatment include surgery, laser therapy and lymphoedema taping. Some of these techniques are new and research still needs to be done to see how effective they are. Your lymhoedema specialist can tell you more.

Managing and treating lymphoedema

Treatment for lymphoedema aims to reduce and control swelling, relieve discomfort and prevent more build-up of fluid.

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 a major part of 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 from time to time.

Your lymphoedema specialist will explain, and show you, what you can do for yourself. This will 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’ll find that you can develop a routine that builds lymphoedema care into your everyday activities. 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

Treatment involves:

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

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

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.

Deep breathing exercises

Before and after MLD and SLD, breathing exercises can help to encourage lymphatic drainage. Use the following simple exercises:

  • Sit upright in a comfortable chair or lie on your bed with your knees slightly bent. Rest your hands on your ribs.
  • Take deep breaths to relax.
  • As you breathe in, direct the air down to your tummy (abdomen), which you will feel rising under your hands.
  • Breathe out slowly by ’sighing’ the air out. While breathing out, let your abdomen relax in again.
  • Do the deep breathing exercises five times.
  • Have a short rest before getting up to avoid feeling dizzy.

Other treatments for lymphoedema

Occasionally, other treatments may be used in combination with the ones already described. Some of the following treatments are new and more research is needed to find out how effective they are in treating lymphoedema.


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 underlying tissue.

Highly specialised surgical techniques are being developed, which involve transplanting or creating new lymph channels in the affected area. This is still experimental and not widely available.

Liposuction is sometimes used in advanced, more complex 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 limb and it is elevated. After a couple of weeks, the bandages are replaced by compression garments. Garments need to be worn long-term to prevent an increase in the size of the limb.

Laser therapy

Light energy from a special low-level, hand-held laser may improve lymph flow, soften hard tissue and reduce swelling. Research is ongoing to find out more about its possible benefits.

Lymphoedema taping (Kinesio® taping)

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

A special, stretchy tape is applied directly onto the skin. It gently lifts the top layer of skin, to allow the superficial lymph fluid to flow more easily. The tape is waterproof and can be worn for several days at a time. It’s used in areas where it’s difficult to apply compression. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you more about this technique.