Lymphedema, swelling in the arm or hand and sometimes in the breast or chest wall that can be very uncomfortable, can occur when some or all of the axillary (underarm) lymph nodes are removed as part of treatment for breast cancer. It can also happen after the axillary lymph nodes have received radiation. In both instances, the lymphatic fluid that’s normally filtered from the tissue collects and causes swelling.

Signs of lymphedema include:

  • visible swelling in the arm, hand, breast, or chest wall
  • a sensation of heaviness, achiness, or tightness in the arm
  • easy fatigue of the arm
  • pain in the arm

Treating Lymphedema

If you notice arm swelling, redness, or pain, it’s very important to tell your doctor so that he or she can treat any infection that may be present. We may also recommend additional testing to look for blood clots or to evaluate other possible causes. Our specialists in occupational and physical therapy can treat lymphedema using compression garments, exercise, and gentle massage, among other techniques.

Our experts are also investigating surgical methods for treating lymphedema. One of these is a procedure called lymph node transplant, in which healthy lymph nodes from other parts of the body are transplanted to the area where lymph nodes have been removed.

Managing Your Risk

Sometimes an injury, infection, burn, or other trauma to the arm triggers lymphedema. Studies have also shown that gaining weight after breast cancer treatment can strain the lymphatic system. Many studies indicate that the risk for developing lymphedema varies based on how the lymph nodes are taken out.

It’s difficult to determine the risk of developing lymphedema because there’s no standard test for diagnosing it. Disruption of lymph flow affects people differently, and lymphedema can develop soon after surgery or years later.

A woman is lying on her back in bed, with her upper arm being examined by a medical professional.
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We don’t know whether specific activities increase the risk of developing lymphedema after treatment for breast cancer. But there are some general guidelines you can follow to reduce the chance of getting an infection that might lead to the condition:

  • Avoid cuts or breaks in the skin that can lead to infection on the affected arm. If you do get a cut, clean the area well and apply antibacterial ointment and a bandage. Watch the area for signs of infection until it heals.
  • Use a moisturizer daily to help protect the skin of your arm and hand.
  • Manicure your nails carefully. Don’t cut the cuticles.
  • Wear gloves when gardening, cleaning, or washing dishes.
  • Use care when removing the hair under your arm. Do not use a straight razor or hair removal cream, as they can cause skin breaks.
  • Use insect repellent to avoid stings.
  • Avoid tight jewelry, clothing, or anything that can cause a tourniquet effect (such as that caused by blood drawing or the taking of blood pressures) on the affected arm. If both arms are involved, ask your doctor how to proceed.
  • Take care not to get sunburned. Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Avoid using heating and hot packs on the affected arm and shoulder.