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Types of treatment for lymphoedema

There are different types of treatment to reduce swelling (lymphoedema). Some treatments are very new and research is also trying to improve treatments.

The aim of lymphoedema treatment

Specialists can’t cure lymphoedema but they can help you to control it.

The aim of treatment is to:

  • reduce and control swelling when possible
  • prevent problems, such as infection
  • help you to live as normally as possible

Follow your specialist’s advice once treatment has reduced or controlled the swelling. This way you can try and stop it getting worse again.

It can be difficult to cope with a condition that you need to think about every day. There will be things you need to do to keep your swelling under control. They will gradually become part of your daily routine.

It also helps to have support from people around you. It can make things easier for you if they understand what you need to do.

Types of treatment for lymphoedema

The main treatments for lymphoedema are:

  • skin care – keeping skin in the swollen area clean, dry and moisturised and preventing injury and infection
  • exercise – to keep lymph flowing through the lymphatic system and help you to maintain a healthy weight
  • reducing swelling – usually by wearing compression garments, some people may need compression bandaging or a specialised massage called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression pumps can also help

Some people with more severe lymphoedema need a period of intensive treatment with skin care, exercise, compression bandaging with or without MLD. This is sometimes called complex decongestive therapy (CDT). Many people don’t need specialist treatment.

An important part of treatment is that you learn how to manage your lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist teaches you how to care for your skin. They also show you how to wear compression garments if you need them. They will teach you exercises that help keep the lymph flowing.

Other types of treatment

Surgery

Doctors are developing specialised types of surgery called microsurgical techniques as another approach to treatment for lymphoedema. The surgeon uses a microscope during surgery. They make tiny cuts in the skin and connect lymph channels and small veins just underneath it.

This type of surgery re-routes the lymph fluid so it can flow better.

Liposuction

Liposuction is another type of surgery. Doctors sometimes use it for advanced lymphoedema.

Liposuction involves removing extra fatty tissue. The surgeon makes several small cuts in the skin and uses a vacuum system to remove the tissue. You have this surgery under a general anaesthetic.

After the procedure, you wear a compression bandage and keep the limb raised up for a few days. After a couple of weeks, you start wearing a specially made compression garment, instead of the bandage. You need to wear the compression garment for the rest of your life, to reduce the risk of the swelling coming back.

Liposuction is a very specialised treatment. It is only available in a few hospitals.

Taping

Taping is another way of managing lymphoedema. The lymphoedema specialist applies special tape on your skin. The idea is that the tape lifts the skin and helps the muscles work to help the lymph fluid to drain.

The tape is waterproof and you wear it for several days. It is also called Kinesiotaping. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you more about this treatment.

Research is looking at other types of treatment for lymphoedema and ways of spotting it earlier.

Last reviewed: 
14 Jun 2017
  • Short Life Working Group on Lymphoedema
    Scottish Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee Report (SMASAC), 2013

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Lymphoedema Care
    Woods, M
    Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

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