Compression treatment for lymphoedema
Compression can be an essential part of lymphoedema treatment. This could be given using compression garments, bandaging or pumps.
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Compression can help reduce and control lymphoedema. It does this by limiting lymph fluid build-up and helping the fluid move to an area that is draining well. It helps muscles pump fluid away.
Compression garments are available in different levels or grades of pressure. The garment you have will depend on how much swelling there is, and which part of the body it affects.
Your lymphoedema specialist may prescribe and fit you with a compression garment. Your GP can also prescribe garments, but usually only on the advice of your lymphoedema specialist.
Depending where the swelling is, you may be fitted with:
- sleeves for swollen arms
- stockings for swollen legs
- garments for lymphoedema in the fingers or toes
- a compression bra or vest for lymphoedema around the breast or chest area
- garments for lymphoedema that affects the genital areas
- compression wraps, which are a system of Velcro™ straps that fit together.
It is important that someone who is experienced in measuring and fitting compression garments fits your garment. Your lymphoedema specialist will usually do this or arrange it for you.
Compression garments are available in different levels or grades of pressure. What is right for you depends on how much swelling you have.
They come in different colours, such as beige, brown or black. There are also hypo-allergenic products for people with sensitive skin. There may be a ready-made garment to match your exact measurements. Or your lymphoedema specialist may need to order a garment to be specially made for you.
Your GP can prescribe garments, but usually only on the advice of your lymphoedema specialist. Your specialist will discuss the best garment for you and choose the correct size. They will then ask your GP to get the garment for you.
Compression garments for your torso
If you have lymphoedema around the chest area, a compression bra, vest, or sports bra might help. The garment should not dig into the chest, back or shoulders. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you whether this would help in your situation.
If you have genital oedema your specialist can advise you and may provide specific garments that might help. These could be lymphoedema compression garments or well-fitting sportswear.
Compression toe caps and gloves
If you have lymphoedema in your fingers or toes, you may need compression toe caps or gloves for these areas. You may also need a garment for your arm or leg.
When you are fitted for your compression garment, you will be shown how to put it on and take it off.
For arm sleeves:
- Fold the top down to the elbow or until the garment is in half, before you put it on.
- Slowly pull the sleeve up your arm using your other hand.
It may help to hold onto something fixed while you do these steps. For example, you could hold on to a locked door handle.
For leg garments, it may help to fold the stocking down to the ankle or heel part then slowly pull it on.
Here are some more tips for putting on and removing compression garments:
- Put your garment on first thing in the morning, when the limb is at its smallest. It is best to wait a short while after a shower or bath. If your skin is damp, it can be difficult to put on.
- Pull the garment over your hand or foot and ease it up, a bit at a time. Make sure you do not pull it up by the top of the garment.
- While you are wearing the garment, do not turn or roll the top over. This will restrict the blood flow and cause more swelling.
- Using a little unperfumed talc on your arm or leg can help ease the garment on. There are other things available to help garments on and off. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you where to buy these.
- Make sure the material is spread evenly and there are no creases when your garment is on. Wearing a rubber glove can help you put the garment on and smooth out any creases.
- Moisturise your skin at night after you take off your garment. It can help to avoid creams just before putting on your garment as they might make it more difficult to put on.
There are some situations when you should not wear compression garments. Always take advice from your lymphoedema specialist, but you should usually avoid wearing one if:
- the skin is fragile or damaged
- the skin is pitted, folded or leaking lymph fluid
- you have cellulitis in the area.
Using compression garments incorrectly can harm you. It also means they will not help the swelling reduce. The material can form tight bands across the skin and even damage it. If you are unsure, ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice.
If you have been fitted with a garment and you notice a change in sensation, the garment may be too tight. Signs of this can be:
- pins and needles
- your fingers or toes changing colour.
If you have any of these, remove the garment straight away and contact your lymphoedema specialist for advice. It is important that you are properly measured and fitted to prevent this happening.
When should I wear my compression garment?
It is important to wear your compression garment all day. You can usually take it off at night, or when you are lying down and resting. If you are finding it too much, ask your specialist about taking breaks from it.
What if my compression garment feels uncomfortable?
If the garment feels very uncomfortable at first, you could try only wearing it when you are most active. In time you should find it more comfortable, and can increase the amount of time you wear it for. However, if you still are finding it difficult to wear, ask your lymphoedema specialist to check it fits correctly.
How many compression garments will I get?
You will get at least 2 garments, so you can have 1 in the wash while you wear the other. Follow the washing instructions on the garment. The garments usually last longer if you wash them by hand rather than in a washing machine.
How long should each compression garment last?
Each garment should last 3 to 6 months, if you are wearing them every day. So your 2 garments usually last 6 to 12 months before they need replacing. Your lymphoedema specialist will need to measure you again before you get replacements.
What do I do if I lose of gain weight?
If your weight changes, your lymphoedema specialist will need to measure you again for a new garment. If your compression garment is too loose, it will not control swelling. If it is too tight, it will restrict blood flow.
Do I need to wear the garments in hot weather?
It is often uncomfortable to wear garments in hot weather. Some manufacturers produce cotton-rich garments. These can be helpful in the summer months, and also for people who have skin allergies. You can cool down your garments by putting the spare one in a plastic bag in the fridge (not freezer).
It can also help to spray cool water over the garment while wearing it. If wearing the garment in hot weather is still too uncomfortable, talk to your lymphoedema specialist. They may have other suggestions to help you.
Do I need to wear the garment when travelling for a long time?
When travelling a long way, especially by plane, make sure you wear your compression garment. You need to do this a few hours before your journey, during the whole journey itself and for some hours afterwards.
Rarely, your arm or leg can get very swollen or change a lot in shape, making it difficult to fit a compression garment. Or your skin may become fragile from putting on and removing it.
To reduce the swelling and improve the shape, you may have special multi-layer compression bandages with padding. A lymphoedema specialist will usually put the bandages on every 1 to 2 days. After a few weeks of bandaging, it may be possible to fit a compression sleeve or stocking.
Lymphoedema wraps are a system of Velcro straps that fit together. They can be used instead of compression garments, or at the same time. Your specialist will discuss whether a wrap compression system may be more suitable for you.
Sometimes, your lymphoedema specialist may ask you to use a compression pump to treat lymphoedema in a limb. When you turn the pump on, the sleeve or leg garment slowly inflates and deflates. You can do this at home and your lymphoedema specialist can give you more information.
Before using the pump, it is important to drain lymph fluid from these areas using lymphatic drainage.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our lymphoedema information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Skin care for people with lymphoedema. British Lymphology Society 2022.
Guidelines on the management of cellulitis in lymphoedema. Lymphoedema Support Network and British Lymphology Society.
O’Donnell TF et al. Systematic review of guidelines for lymphedema and the need for contemporary intersocietal guidelines for the management of lymphedema. Journal of Vascular Surgery: Venous and Lymphatic Disorders 2020.
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