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Your lymphatic system has many important roles in your body, including:

  • maintaining your fluid levels
  • getting rid of toxins
  • producing white blood cells that help protect you from viruses, bacteria, and other invaders

When infections, diseases, or injuries cause your lymphatic system to stop functioning properly, you may develop lymphedema. With this condition, lymph fluid builds up in your tissues and causes swelling.

Lymphedema usually affects the arms and legs but can also happen in the neck, abdomen, chest, and genitals, says Ali Shehvaiz Younus, DPT, a physical therapist at Reactive Physio.

If you have lymphedema in your arms, one way to lessen the swelling and discomfort is to wear a compression sleeve.

Below, you’ll find answers to eight commonly asked questions about compression sleeves for lymphedema, including how they work and how long you can wear them at a time.

Primary vs. secondary lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is caused by rare genetic conditions, such as Meige’s disease and Milroy’s disease, that prevent the lymphatic system from developing properly.

The more common type, secondary lymphedema, is caused by damage to the lymphatic system. This type often happens after cancer treatments like radiation therapy and surgery, since these treatments can damage your lymph nodes and the surrounding vessels.

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Compression sleeves are tight, stretchy bands of fabric that you can wear on your limbs to increase blood flow. They come in a variety of materials, colors, and styles.

Here’s how to use one:

  1. Fold the sleeve in half.
  2. Slide it onto the affected arm, up to your elbow.
  3. Pull the folded part onto your upper arm and work it upward until it sits right below your armpit.
  4. Smooth out the sleeve until no wrinkles or creases remain.

The main goal of lymphedema treatment is to manage the swelling caused by excess lymph fluid buildup. Since these sleeves apply pressure, they help encourage lymph fluid to drain away from the tissue, Younus says, which can reduce pain and swelling.

But these sleeves don’t just treat symptoms of lymphedema, Younus explains. They may also help prevent this condition by stopping lymph from pooling.

Compression sleeves may have long lasting benefits. Here’s what the research says:

  • A 2017 study examined the benefits of compression sleeves after axillary lymph node dissection — a breast cancer surgery that can damage the lymphatic system. Participants who wore a sleeve for 8 to 10 hours daily experienced less postsurgery swelling and had less arm edema at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months after the surgery.
  • A small 2019 study of breast cancer survivors found that wearing a compression sleeve for 2 years helped prevent postoperative lymphedema. It also led to significant improvement in certain quality-of-life measures, such as fatigue, pain, physical functioning, and arm and breast symptoms.
  • A 2020 review involved participants who had received a sentinel node biopsy, an axillary lymph node dissection, or radiotherapy as treatment for breast cancer. According to the results, compression sleeves may reduce the risk of lymphedema after breast cancer treatment or prevent it from getting worse.

Determining whether to wear a compression sleeve may depend on what stage of lymphedema you have:

  • Stage 1: Your arm feels heavy and swollen, and pressing on it leaves a dent.
  • Stage 2: In addition to the swelling in your arm, your skin has thickened and hardened. Pressure does not leave a dent.
  • Stage 3: Your affected arm has become significantly larger than your other arm. Your skin has hardened and may show scarring and wart-like growths.

Compression sleeves can help address symptoms of stage 1 lymphedema, but if your condition has progressed to stage 2 or 3, you might need an alternative treatment first. Other treatments may include surgery to remove the affected area or rewire the lymphatic system, as well as complete decongestive therapy.

Your primary care doctor can offer more guidance on whether you might benefit from wearing a compression sleeve, based on your symptoms and their severity.

A doctor or physical therapist can offer specific directions for wearing a compression sleeve. Some people may need to wear one every day, but others may need to wear one only when their lymphedema flares up.

Typically, you’ll wear a sleeve during the day and take it off at night. Ideally, you’ll put the sleeve on right after waking up, when your limb is the least swollen. Or you can put it on after showering, if that’s part of your morning routine.

It’s important to wear your compression sleeve while:

  • exercising
  • doing housework that involves physical effort, like gardening, vacuuming, or mowing the lawn
  • traveling by airplane, because of air pressure changes

Research has yet to come to any conclusions on whether you can safely wear a daytime compression sleeve while you sleep. The sleeve could move while you’re sleeping, Younus explains, which may restrict blood flow and ultimately worsen the swelling.

That said, if your lymphedema bothers you during the night, get in touch with your doctor. In some cases, they may recommend wearing a special non-elasticized nighttime sleeve to get relief. Nighttime sleeves are usually looser and bulkier and offer gentler compression.

According to a 2021 study involving breast cancer survivors, using both a daytime and a nighttime compression sleeve may prove more effective for reducing arm lymphedema than using a daytime sleeve alone.

When choosing a sleeve, you have a few styles to consider:

  • Upper arm to hand: These sleeves offer the most coverage. They extend from your upper arm to the middle of your hand, with a partial fingerless glove.
  • Upper arm to wrist: These sleeves start at your upper arm and stop at your wrist.
  • Dual-arm: This option has sleeves for both arms, often connected via a strip of fabric across the back.
  • Gloves: You can wear these in combination with a compression sleeve if you have edema in your hands.

The right compression sleeve for you depends on where swelling most affects your arm. When in doubt, always work with your doctor or a lymphedema therapist. They can help you find the right style and compression level, plus recommend specific reputable brands and retailers that sell the most durable compression sleeves.

No matter what style you choose, the most important consideration when buying a compression sleeve is proper fit. Your sleeve should feel snug but not uncomfortable. The pressure should feel even throughout the sleeve.

If your compression sleeve is too tight, you may notice:

Conversely, your sleeve may be too loose if you notice that it:

  • bunches up
  • gapes
  • slides around

Before buying a compression sleeve, it’s important to get properly fitted by your doctor or physical therapist. Getting fitted helps ensure that your sleeve will provide the right amount of pressure to help lymph buildup flow out of your arm. A too-tight sleeve can restrict the flow of the lymph and make your symptoms worse.

You can find compression sleeves at medical supply stores and large online retailers such as Amazon and Walmart. However, these sleeves come in only premade sizes — small, medium, large, and extra large. You may find it difficult to get a proper fit with these off-the-shelf garments.

Getting fitted before you buy online is always a good step. That way, you can check the brand’s size chart or have a healthcare professional assess the fit to make sure it will work for you.

Your doctor may also prescribe a compression sleeve to treat your lymphedema — which means your insurance is more likely to cover it.

You can get fitted and order a customized sleeve at any local durable medical equipment store.

Compression sleeves can ease symptoms of lymphedema by helping excess lymph drain away. They may also help ward off lymphedema by preventing lymph from building up in the first place.

Typically, you’ll wear a sleeve from morning until night and take it off to sleep. But if your symptoms cause discomfort that disrupts your sleep, you can ask your doctor about a special nighttime sleeve.

If you think a sleeve could help your lymphedema symptoms, your care team can offer more personalized guidance on where to get fitted and order a customized sleeve.

Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.