Treating and managing lymphoedema

Treatment for lymphoedema aims to reduce and control swelling, help with discomfort, and stop fluid build-up.

The main treatments for lymphoedema are:

  • skin care
  • exercise and keeping active
  • positioning of the limb or area
  • compression
  • a type of massage called lymphatic drainage.

You may have other treatments, including taping, surgery or laser therapy, but these are less common.

You will also be advised to avoid pressure on the area from things such as tight clothing or jewellery. 

You will be taught how to manage the lymphoedema yourself. This is to help you have more control over your treatment and reduce the number of visits you have to hospital.

Treatment for lymphoedema

Treatment for lymphoedema aims to reduce and control swelling, help with discomfort, and stop fluid build-up.

It should make the affected area less swollen, easier to move and feel more comfortable. Sometimes, it may take several weeks or months before you notice much improvement.

Your lymphoedema specialist will talk to you about the right treatment for your situation. You will usually have more than one type of treatment, as they work better when used together.

The main treatments for lymphoedema are:

You may have other treatments, including taping and surgery, but these are less common.

These treatments usually help reduce lymphoedema, wherever it is in the body. Your lymphoedema specialist will explain the best way of managing lymphoedema in areas of the body that are more difficult to treat. This includes the breast or chest, head and neck area and the genitals.

To start with, you may have more regular treatment from your lymphoedema specialist. After this, the specialist will talk to you about how you can manage the lymphoedema yourself.


Avoiding pressure on the area

Along with treatment, your lymphoedema specialist will also advise you to avoid pressure on the area. This is because it can affect the flow of lymph fluid. This depends on which part of the body is affected.

If possible, you should avoid:

  • having your blood pressure taken in the affected arm
  • wearing tight jewellery such as rings, watches, bracelets, ankle bracelets or toe rings
  • wearing tight clothing such as tops with tight armholes, waist bands or bra straps.

You should try to find a well-fitted bra with a wide shoulder strap and deep sides. This can help give support and make you feel more comfortable.


Self-managing lymphoedema

Learning how to manage lymphoedema yourself is the main part of treatment. This means you have less hospital appointments. It also gives you more control over when to do your lymphoedema treatment, so you can fit it into daily life.

After your lymphoedema specialist has assessed you, they will discuss the best way to manage the lymphoedema. You will usually have a combination of treatments.

You need to do the treatments regularly to get the best results. Your specialist will tell you how often to do them. You can slowly add your lymphoedema care into your daily routine.

Family or friends often want to help, and there may be practical things they can do. They may be able to help with tasks you find difficult because of the swelling. They could also help you with your compression garment or give you a simple lymphatic drainage massage.

I go to a lymphoedema clinic twice a year. But I’ve got a phone number to call in between my appointments if I need to.

Betty


Other treatments

Sometimes, you may have other treatments alongside skin care, keeping active, positioning of the limb or area, compression and lymphatic drainage.

Some of the following treatments are new and more research is needed to find out how well they treat lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist will know how helpful these treatments might be for you and where you can have them.

Lymphoedema taping (Kinesio® taping)

This is a special taping technique that is mainly used to treat sports injuries. It is also sometimes used to treat lymphoedema.

The tape is made of an elastic cotton material. When the tape is stretched and stuck onto the skin, it gently lifts the top layer of skin. This allows the lymph fluid closest to the surface of the skin to flow more easily. The tape is water resistant, and you can wear it for several days at a time. You usually have this to treat areas where it is difficult to use compression.

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

Surgery

You may have surgery for lymphoedema, but it is rare. You may have it to reduce swelling around the face or genital areas. Or you may have surgery to reduce the size of an affected limb. Surgeons will do this by removing the skin and some tissue underneath.

Doctors may also use specialised surgical techniques to move lymph nodes from one area to another. Or they can move lymph vessels, so that they drain into other lymph vessels or nearby veins. This helps to drain the affected area. These are new treatments in the UK and are not widely available.

You may be able to have liposuction to treat lymphoedema in limbs. The surgeon makes a number of small cuts in the skin. They then remove swollen, fatty tissue through these cuts using a vacuum. After the operation, you have a compression bandage. You should also keep the limb raised for a few days. About 2 weeks after the operation, you have the bandages removed. You then get a compression garment that you need to wear long-term. This is to reduce the risk of the swelling returning.

Laser therapy

This treatment uses a laser to target cells in the lymphatic system. It aims to improve the flow of lymph fluid, soften hard tissue, reduce swelling and stop it from getting worse. Research is happening to find out more about its possible benefits. So at the moment, it is not widely available.

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