Lymphedema: FAQs


Cancer treatment is lifesaving and necessary; however, it may leave patients with new battles as they progress in their survivorship journey. Lymphedema is a common side effect of cancer and its treatments. 

March is Lymphedema Awareness Month. 

Below are frequently asked questions and answers about lymphedema and related risk factors. 

What is the lymphatic system? 

The lymphatic system is a network of lymph vessels that carry fluid containing proteins/cell waste/debris from the body and return it through the veins into the blood to be recycled. 

What is lymphedema? 

Lymphedema is the accumulation of excess fluid in the body due to damage to the lymphatic system, leading to swelling. It is a chronic condition that requires consistent management to prevent progression.

What causes lymphedema? 

Lymphedema is caused when there is a lymphatic system breakdown due to excessive fluid or more fluid than the lymphatic system typically processes. It often occurs due to vascular insufficiency or vein problems. Lymphedema can also be caused by damage to or blocking of a previously functioning lymphatic system that may occur due to cancer and treatment side effects, tumors pushing on the lymphatic system or trauma. Additionally, some individuals are born with deficits in the lymphatic system. 

What signs or symptoms may indicate lymphedema? 
  • Intermittent swelling. 
  • A sense of heaviness in the affected area. 
  • Skin tightness. 
  • Sensation changes. 
  • Aching or limb discomfort. 
  • Skin thickening. 
  • Changes in movement. 
What are some risk factors for lymphedema? 
  • Cancer and treatment including surgery, radiation and some chemotherapy. 
  • Tumors obstructing the lymphatic system. 
  • Lymph nodes being removed or extensive tumor removal. 
  • Infection history in the limb or affected region. 
  • Vascular problems such as blood clot history or venous insufficiency. 
  • Trauma. 
  • Congenital abnormalities in the lymphatic system. 
  • Obesity. 
What does therapy for lymphedema involve? 

Treatment for lymphedema may include an individualized compression plan, exercise and/or skin care or manual lymphatic drainage as appropriate. Patients have the best results when wearing compression garments and actively participating in lymphedema therapy treatment plans. 

What should I do if I am experiencing symptoms of lymphedema? 

Contact a health care provider, explain the current symptoms and ask whether a lymphedema therapy referral is recommended. A physician referral is required for treatment. It is important to remember that earlier treatment and lymphedema management help to improve patient outcomes. 

Learn more about lymphedema therapy and other rehabilitation services offered at Northside.


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Abbey Wright, OTR/L, CLWT, CLT-LANA picture

Abbey Wright, OTR/L, CLWT, CLT-LANA

Specialties: Occupational Therapy

Abbey Wright is an occupational therapist with Northside Hospital Rehabilitation Services.

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