UnityPoint Health - John Stoddard Cancer Center

Lymphedema Clinic

Lymphedema

Lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of protein-rich fluid (lymph) that causes swelling of a body part, most frequently in an arm or leg. There are two basic classifications of lymphedema.

Primary Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is due to a malformation in the lymphatic system. Primary lymphedema may not become clinically apparent until there is an incident that overloads the deficient lymphatic system. It has a greater occurrence in women than men and presents itself predominately in the legs.

Secondary Lymphedema

Secondary lymphedema may occur as the result of a disease process or tissue insult, such as surgery, radiation, lymph node removal, or trauma. Damage to, or destruction of, the lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes increase the likelihood of developing lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema may occur immediately after the original insult or years later. It is often triggered by infection or injury.

Prevention of lymphedema requires individuals at risk to take special precautions and to be able to detect its onset. Lymphedema has no cure, but can be successfully managed through therapeutic intervention.

Lymphedema Treatment

Lymphedema is best treated with Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT), a comprehensive treatment program that includes:

  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

  • Compression bandaging and/or garments

  • Lymphedema exercises

  • Meticulous skin and nail care

  • Education and prevention for self management

The goals of CDT are:

  • Consistent reduction of swelling and fibrous tissue

  • Prevention of lymph fluid reaccumulation

  • Improved movement and function

  • Prevention and elimination of infections

  • Self-esteem enhancement

A preventative treatment program is also provided for post-surgical patients who have had lymph nodes removed. These individuals are at risk for lymphedema. This program includes:

  • Soft tissue mobilization

  • Range of motion and stretching exercises

  • Strengthening exercises

  • Postural training

  • Education and prevention

For more information, view our Axillary Lymph Node Surgery Education booklet that discusses cancer resources, post-surgical issues, recovery recommendations, lymphedema education, and breast cancer post-surgery resources.