Lymphedema is chronic swelling of one or both extremities following damage to or removal of the lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels.

The most common cause of lymphedema is when lymph nodes in the armpit are removed along with breast tissue during surgery for the management of breast cancer. This can result in significant swelling of one or both arms.  

Other causes of lymphedema include:

  • trauma

  • infection

  • radiation

Unlike other types of post operative swelling (which is eventually pumped away in the circulatory system), lymphatic fluid can only be removed by the lymph vessels.

Physical therapists who have been specially trained in lymphedema management, perform a manual lymphatic drainage massage and fit and apply compression bandaging. Ultimately the patient is trained in self management of lymphedema which includes range of motion exercises and the use of compression stockings.

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