Treating lymphoedema in different parts of the body

Cancer-related lymphoedema can develop in parts of the body other than arms and legs, including the:

  • breast or chest
  • genital area
  • head and neck.

As with any lymphoedema, good skin care is essential. Exercise is also important.

If you have breast or chest lymphoedema, you should avoid wearing clothes or bras that are too tight in that area. Wearing made-to-measure compression vests or bras can help control lymphoedema. Lymphatic drainage also helps prevent fluid build-up. If you wear a breast prosthesis, choose a lightweight one.

If you have lymphoedema in the genital area, it’s essential to have good skin care and avoid infections. Lymphoedema can be improved with lymphatic drainage and specially made compression garments and padding. Pelvic floor exercises and deep breathing will also help reduce swelling. Occasionally, surgery may be used.

Lymphoedema of the head or neck is usually treated with lymphatic drainage. Sometimes it is possible to use special compression garments on the area. Surgery is occasionally used.

Managing lymphoedema in other parts of the body

Lymphoedema can affect other parts of the body, depending which lymph nodes have been removed or affected.

As with treatment for arm or leg lymphoedema, good skin care is essential. Exercising, keeping to a healthy weight and taking good care of yourself are also important. Your specialist will explain the best way of managing and treating lymphoedema in other parts of your body.

Breast or chest lymphoedema

Clothing, bras and prostheses

Clothes that are too tight, such as bras, vests, or anything with a tight waistband, can sometimes prevent lymph fluid from draining.

If your bra is too tight around the chest, or if the straps dig into the shoulders and under the arm, this can prevent the flow of lymph fluid out of the chest. Try wearing a bra that has wide and flexible shoulder straps and bands around the chest. It’s also important to make sure you have the right cup size – your lymphoedema specialist can advise you about being correctly measured.

Some breast prostheses are very heavy and can apply pressure to the chest area, making the shoulder straps on a bra dig in. If you need to wear a prosthesis, try to get a lightweight one. Your lymphoedema specialist can advise you about bras and breast prostheses.

Compression bras and vests

You can get compression bras and specialist vests for breast or chest lymphoedema from your lymphoedema specialist. They often need to be made to measure to make sure they fit properly. It can also be helpful to wear a sports bra.

You may also need to wear a compression sleeve to stop the fluid moving from one area to another, and to help to improve drainage. Compression bandaging isn’t often used to treat lymphoedema of the breast or chest area.

Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) and simple lymphatic drainage (SLD)

MLD and SLD are an important part of treating breast and chest lymphoedema.

Your therapist can give you more information about this.

Lymphoedema taping (Kinesio® taping)

This is a special taping technique that’s applied directly onto the skin. It gently lifts the top layer of skin, which allows the superficial lymph fluid to flow more easily.

Genital lymphoedema

It’s important to look after your skin and keep it clean as skin infections can be more common in the genital area. Genital lymphoedema is usually treated with MLD or SLD.

Women may have compression garments specially made, which can be padded to protect swollen areas. Sports clothing or shapewear underwear containing lycra may also help, depending on how much swelling there is.

Pelvic floor and tummy (abdominal) exercises combined with deep breathing exercises can help reduce swelling. Your lymphoedema specialist can show you how to do these.

In men, a scrotal support or specially made compression garment can be used to help to control swelling. Close-fitting lycra shorts (cycling shorts or some types of underwear) can also be useful, depending on how much swelling there is. Padding can also help to protect swollen areas. Bandaging can sometimes be used if the penis is swollen.

Your specialist can tell you about which products might be helpful in your situation. Occasionally, surgery may be used to treat genital lymphoedema. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

Head and neck lymphoedema

Lymphoedema of the face, neck or head is usually managed with MLD and SLD. In some situations Kinesio taping is used. Sometimes, special, low-pressure compression garments can be made to use in this area of the body. But compression should never be applied to the neck area. Surgery is occasionally used to treat lymphoedema of the eyelids.

Any condition that affects the appearance of the head and neck area can be hard to cope with. It’s important to get support from professionals and those close to you if you need it.

We have more information about body image and the emotional effects of lymphoedema.