Controlling lymphoedema with compression

Compression can help to reduce and control lymphoedema. It puts pressure on tissues to stop fluid build-up and encourages fluid to drain.

Compression garments, such as a sleeve for an arm or a stocking for a leg, are most commonly used.

Your compression garment should be fitted by a specialist to make sure it is effective. It should not be too loose or too tight. Your lymphoedema specialist will select the type of garment and the amount of pressure that is right for you. They will show you how to put on and remove the garment.

You should not use a garment if the area is very swollen or an irregular shape, or if the skin is damaged. If you are not able to wear a compression garment your lymphoedema specialist may suggest using special, multi-layer bandages (compression bandages). Once the swelling has reduced you should be able to use a compression garment.

Less commonly, compression pumps are used. If your specialist suggests this, they will show you how to use it so you can do it yourself at home.

Compression

Compression can help reduce and control lymphoedema. It works by:

  • limiting lymph fluid build-up
  • helping move fluid to an area that is draining well
  • providing support that helps muscles pump fluid away 
  • putting more pressure on certain areas, to help drain more fluid.

You can have compression in different ways. The best way for you will depend on how much swelling you have, and the part of the body affected. Your lymphoedema specialist will discuss this with you.


Compression garments

Your lymphoedema specialist may prescribe and fit you with a compression garment. This is to help control the lymphoedema. You may have sleeves for swollen arms and stockings for swollen legs. You can also get compression garments for lymphoedema that affects the breast, chest and genital areas.

Having a compression garment fitted

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 shades to match different skin tones. There are 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.

If you have lymphoedema around the chest area, a compression bra or vest 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.

You may have lymphoedema in your fingers or toes. If so, you may need a garment for these areas, as well as your arm or leg.

Putting on and removing compression garments

When you are fitted for your compression garment, you will be shown how to put it on and remove it. Here are some tips:

  • 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, one bit at a time. Make sure you do not pull it up by the top of 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 also different things available to help put garments on and to take them off. Your lymphoedema specialist will be able to give you information about suppliers.
  • 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. If you have an arm sleeve, you should put the glove on the opposite hand.
  • Moisturise your skin at night after you take off your garment. Do not do this in the morning, because cream makes the sleeve or stocking difficult to put on.

Tips for putting on arm sleeves

For arm sleeves, start by folding the top down to the elbow or until the garment is in half. You could also hold onto something like a doorknob or handle to help. You can pull against it to pull the sleeve up your arm.

Tips for putting on leg sleeves

For leg garments, it may help to turn the stocking inside out as far as the ankle or heel part.

Wearing compression garments

It is important to wear your compression garment all day. You can usually take it off at night, when you are lying down and resting.

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.

You will get at least two garments, so you can have one 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.

Each garment should last 3 to 6 months, if you are wearing them every day. So your two garments usually last 6 to 12 months before they need replacing. Your lymphoedema specialist will need to measure you again before you get replacements.

If your weight changes, your lymphoedema specialist may need to measure you again for a new garment. If your compression garment is too loose, it will not control swelling. And if it is too tight, it will restrict blood flow.

If you notice a change in sensation, the garment may be too tight. Signs of this can be:

  • numbness
  • pins and needles
  • pain
  • a change of colour of your fingers or toes.

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.

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 from a spray bottle, 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.

When travelling a long distance, 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.

When not to use compression garments

There are some situations when you should not wear compression garments. You should 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 your limb is large and irregular in shape, you may get compression bandaging. This is to try and make the limb smaller before you are fitted with a compression garment.

It’s like putting your shoes on – I get up and put my sleeve on. It’s just part of me and I'm glad it’s under control.

Irene

I sometimes have to wear a 'sleeve' to contain the swelling - but it doesn't interfere with my day-to-day activities.

Naomi

Lymphoedema and compression garments explained

Lymphoedema practitioner Yolande Borthwick gives advice on lymphoedema and explains how to use compression garments.

About our cancer information videos

Lymphoedema and compression garments explained

Lymphoedema practitioner Yolande Borthwick gives advice on lymphoedema and explains how to use compression garments.

About our cancer information videos


Compression bandages

Rarely, your arm or leg can get very swollen or change a lot in shape. This means it may be difficult to fit a compression sleeve or stocking.

To reduce the swelling and improve the shape, you may have special multi-layer lymphoedema bandages. You will also have padding with the bandages.

Sometimes, you have bandaging if the skin is fragile. This is because putting on and removing a compression garment could cause damage.

A lymphoedema specialist will usually put the compression bandages on for you every 1 or 2 days. It may take 2 or 3 weeks of bandaging before it is possible to fit a compression sleeve or stocking.

There are other types of compression systems that are like wraps. They have straps that overlap. Velcro keeps them in place. Wraps can be easier for you to manage yourself. They can also be more effective when swelling is harder to control.


Compression pumps

Sometimes, your lymphoedema specialist may use compression pumps to treat lymphoedema in a limb. If they recommend this, they will show you how to use one at home. It may be possible to borrow a pump from your local hospital, as they are expensive to buy. Your lymphoedema specialist can give you more information.

The pump uses electricity. It has a power unit, and an inflatable sleeve that you put on your arm or leg. When you turn the pump on, the sleeve slowly inflates for a few minutes. It then deflates for a few minutes. Your lymphoedema specialist will tell you which pressure to emptyuse. Do not use higher pressures than this, as it could make the swelling worse.

Before using the pump, it is important to do simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) or manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). You need to have this to your body (trunk) and at the top of the affected limb. This is to drain lymph fluid from these areas, before the pump moves more fluid out of your affected limb.

Tips for using a pump

  • Do not use the pump if you have an infection or inflammation in the affected limb.
  • Always remove your compression garment before using the pump. Put it back on as soon as you have 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 any pain, stop straight away and tell your doctor.

Watch for more swelling or thickening at the top of the limb, where the pump sleeve stops. If this happens, ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice.