Lymphedema is a condition that causes one or more of your arms or legs to become swollen due to a buildup of lymph fluid.

This often occurs in people who’ve had a surgery during which their lymph nodes were damaged or removed. For example, up to 40 percent of those who undergo surgery for breast cancer will experience it, as this surgery usually involves a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

This type of lymphedema is called secondary lymphedema.

Primary lymphedema is lymphedema that happens on its own, not caused by another condition or injury. It can occur in children born with impaired or missing lymph nodes.

Globally, a common cause of lymphedema is an infection by Wuchereria bancrofti roundworms. This is known as lymphatic filariasis. According to the World Health Organization, it’s responsible for causing lymphedema in over 15 million people worldwide. Lymphatic filariasis is one of the world’s leading causes of disability.

No matter the origin, everyone with lymphedema experiences pain and discomfort. It’s important to detect this condition as early as possible, so you can then focus on remedying the problem. See your doctor if you notice swelling in your limbs that persists, especially if you’ve recently undergone surgery that affects your lymph nodes.

How is lymphedema treated?

There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are many ways it can be treated.

Although surgery to remove tissue and excess fluid is among them, this is only considered an option in the most severe circumstances.

If you have lymphedema, it’s unlikely that your doctor will recommend surgery as a first step. They’ll probably recommend a noninvasive option called complete decongestive therapy (CDT). Also called complex decongestive therapy, CDT focuses on multiple methods of alleviating lymph fluid retention you’re experiencing.

There are several drainage-promoting therapies performed during a course of CDT:

Wrapping and compression

By using either bandages or special compression garments, you may be able to help the lymph fluid drain from your extremities through pressure. Affected body parts usually need to stay wrapped up 24 hours a day — except during bathing.

Manual lymphatic drainage

Manual lymphatic drainage, which is targeted massage or manipulation of soft tissue, can aid in draining lymphatic fluid. Your CDT provider will likely massage you and also show you some techniques that you can perform on yourself to promote drainage.

Skin care regimen

Because lymphedema also affects the skin, people undergoing treatment need to practice special skin care techniques. The goal is to maintain clean and well-moisturized skin to ward off infection.

Exercises

It’s important to stay as active as you can, as physical activity is one of the most effective ways to promote drainage. Your doctor will help you determine which types of exercises are right for you. Most will include stimulation of arm or leg muscles.

CDT duration and aftercare

Lymphedema treatment with CDT lasts anywhere from two weeks to three months, depending on severity and how the body responds to the treatment.

After that period of intensive, professional treatment is complete, you need to continue to practice good habits at home by wearing your compression garments at night and performing your exercises. You’ll need to do this until your doctor instructs you otherwise.

Lymphatic filariasis treatment

The drug diethylcarbamazine is commonly prescribed to treat lymphatic filariasis.

Outlook for lymphedema therapy

Although there is no cure for lymphedema, the condition can be managed to reduce discomfort.

Depending on the nature of your lymphedema, your doctor may begin with a treatment such as wrapping, and then move on to physical therapy.

Some people see benefits from ongoing physical therapy alone. Your doctor may recommend compression garments, especially during physical activity or while flying in an airplane to help keep swelling down.

Because everyone’s body reacts differently to therapies, talk to your doctor about the best route for treating your lymphedema.