Lymphedema is swelling that happens when lymph – a clear fluid that helps your body get rid of toxins – builds up in one part of your body, usually your arms or legs. 

You can inherit lymphedema. Doctors call this primary lymphedema. It happens when you’re born without certain lymph vessels and nodes.

You can also acquire lymphedema. Doctors call this secondary lymphedema. It happens because your lymph nodes in that area have been damaged or removed, so the lymph can’t drain. Acquired lymphedema can develop because of:

  • Cancer
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Infection
  • Radiation to treat cancer
  • Scar tissue
  • Sunburn
  • Surgery (such as mastectomies and lumpectomies used to treat breast cancer)
  • Trauma such as a bruise, cut or sports injury


The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling in your arms, legs, hands, fingers, shoulders or chest. Other symptoms include:

  • A “full” sensation in your limbs
  • Lack of flexibility in one of your hands, wrists or ankles
  • Tightness in your clothing, especially in one area
  • Tightness when wearing a ring or watch


If you have signs of lymphedema, talk to your Aurora Health Care doctor. Your doctor will give you a physical exam and perform diagnostic tests. Then he or she will work with you on a treatment plan to meet your needs which may include medication or physical therapy.

Services & Treatment

If an infection is triggering your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. You may also be given compression garments, shown special wrapping techniques to reduce swelling, or be advised to massage and stretch the skin to help drain lymph fluid.

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who can recommend specific exercises to help minimize your symptoms.


To help prevent lymphedema from recurring:

  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes in the part of your body that’s affected
  • Be careful when cutting your fingernails or toenails
  • Call your doctor immediately if you notice signs of infection (fever, flu-like symptoms, pain, tenderness, swelling or a wound that won’t heal)
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of protein
  • Get regular low-impact exercise (such as walking)
  • Keep your skin clean
  • Protect your hands when you garden or do housework

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