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Managing lymphoedema

Appropriate management and daily care can reduce swelling, improve movement and prevent infections associated with lymphoedema.A doctor or qualified lymphoedema practitioner can help develop a management plan. A lymphoedema practitioner is an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or nurse who is trained in lymphoedema management.

Their recommendations will depend on the severity of a woman’s symptoms. See National Lymphoedema Practitioners Register (a service of the Australasian Lymphology Association) to find a lymphoedema practitioner in Australia.

Possible ways to manage lymphoedema are listed below. Research has shown that these techniques are effective. There are alternative treatment options, but few studies have been done to test their effectiveness and some have not been tested in women with breast cancer.

  • Skin care – daily attention to skin care is important because the skin is a barrier against infection.
  • Exercise – gentle exercise can help lymph to flow through the lymphatic vessels. Exercise will also help maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Elevation – raising the affected arm (eg by supporting it on pillows) may help to reduce symptoms.
  • Compression garments – these are special elastic garments that may help to reduce swelling by stopping the build up of lymph and by moving lymph out of the affected area. Compression garments should be fitted professionally and replaced when they lose their elasticity. Compression bandaging may be used for severe swelling or for fragile skin.
  • Manual lymphatic drainage or decongestive physiotherapy – this is a special form of massage that includes long, slow strokes to stimulate the flow of lymph from the affected area. These treatments should be designed by a qualified lymphoedema practitioner, who can also teach family members this technique.