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Types of treatment for lymphoedema

This page tells you about the different types of treatment for lymphoedema and how your lymphoedema specialist decides which treatment you need. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

The aim of treatment for lymphoedema is to reduce swelling when possible, prevent problems such as infection and help you to live as normally as possible. The treatment plan for lymphoedema is called complex decongestive therapy (CDT). 

Treatment includes

  • Skin care – keeping skin in the swollen area clean, dry and moisturised and preventing injury and infection
  • Reducing swelling – with specialised massage called manual lymphatic massage (MLD) , compression bandaging, compression pumps or compression garments
  • Exercise – to keep lymph flowing through the lymphatic system and to help you maintain a healthy weight

There is information about these treatments in this section. And also information on rarer treatments such as surgery, liposuction and Kinesiotaping.  

An important part of treatment is that you learn how to manage your lymphoedema. Many people don’t need to have specialist treatment. Instead your lymphoedema specialist may teach you how to care for your skin, how to wear compression garments if needed, and will show you any exercises you need to do to help keep the lymph flowing.

The type of treatment you need depends on

  • How much swelling you have
  • The part of your body affected
  • How treatments will fit into your lifestyle

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating lymphoedema section.

 

 

The aim of lymphoedema treatment

Lymphoedema can’t usually be cured but it can be controlled. The aim of treatment is to

  • Reduce swelling when possible
  • Prevent problems, such as infection
  • Help you to live as normally as possible

Once your treatment has reduced swelling, you need to keep following your specialist’s advice to try and stop it getting worse again.

It can be difficult to cope with a condition that you need to think about every day. It may help to know that once your lymphoedema is controlled, the things you need to do 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. There is information about coping with lymphoedema in this section.

 

Types of treatment for lymphoedema

The treatment plan for lymphoedema is sometimes called complex decongestive therapy (CDT). 

The main treatments for lymphoedema are

  • Skin care – keeping skin in the swollen area clean, dry and moisturised and preventing injury and infection
  • Reducing swelling with specialised massage called manual lymphatic massage (MLD), compression bandaging, compression pumps, or compression garments
  • Exercise – to keep lymph flowing through the lymphatic system and help you to maintain a healthy weight

The links above take you to information about these treatments in this section.

An important part of treatment is that you learn how to manage your lymphoedema. Many people do not need to have specialist treatment. Instead your lymphoedema specialist teaches you how to care for your skin and how to wear compression garments if you need them. They also show you any exercises you need to do to help keep the lymph flowing.

Other types of treatment 

Surgery is very rarely considered as a treatment for lymphoedema. Rarely, a specialist may suggest surgery to try to get lymph fluid to flow around a blockage in the lymphatic system.

Liposuction is another rare type of surgery sometimes used in advanced lymphoedema. This involves surgically removing extra fatty tissues through several small cuts in the skin using a vacuum. This can be done under general anaesthetic. After the procedure a compression bandage is worn and the limb is elevated for a few days. After a couple of weeks the bandages are replaced by a specially made compression garment. This needs to be worn for the rest of your life, to reduce the risk of the swelling returning. This is a very specialist treatment and is only done in a few hospitals.  

Taping is a new way of managing lymphoedema. The lymphoedema specialist sticks special tapes 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 can be worn for several days. It is also called Kinesiotaping. Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you more. 

You can find more information about newer treatments on the page about research into lymphoedema and its treatments.

 

Deciding which treatment you need

Treatment depends on

How much swelling you have

Mild lymphoedema means there is slight swelling in the area. Your nurse or doctor will give you advice about looking after your skin and will show you any exercises you need to do. Depending on the part of your body affected they may also suggest that you wear a compression garment.

If you have more severe lymphoedema you may need treatment from a specialist. This is known as intensive treatment. This may include having a daily specialist massage and then multi layered bandaging to reduce the swelling. This intensive treatment usually lasts for a few weeks. Once the swelling has gone down you wear a compression garment that has been measured especially for you. You may also be taught how to bandage yourself.

The part of your body affected

The treatment you need depends on where the lymphoedema is. The information below tells you about the different treatments for different parts of the body. There is information about

Lymphoedema in your head and neck
The main treatment is specialist massage called manual lymphatic darinage (MLD). It is not usually possible to do bandaging. There are light compression garments for the head, but you should not wear anything around your neck.

Lymphoedema in your chest, trunk, breast or genital area
Depending on the amount of swelling you may be able to wear compression garments. If you have more severe lymphoedema you may need to have massage (MLD). Then once the swelling is reduced you wear a compression garment to keep the swelling under control. You may also have bandaging if you have severe lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema of your arm or leg
Compression garments are often the first way to manage lymphoedema in the arm or leg. You may also have massage (MLD) and bandaging either on their own or in combination to reduce the swelling. Then you will need to wear a compression garment to keep swelling down. Your lymphoedema specialist might use special tape to encourage the lymph fluid to drain. 

The aim of treatment is to reduce the swelling as much as possible so you can get on with your life as normal. 

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Updated: 1 April 2014