What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling that can happen if lymph nodes were removed or radiated during treatment for cancer. It can also happen for other reasons, for example if you were born without a full lymphatic system or if you have had trouble with your veins for a long time. It can affect any part of the body. It is different from other swelling because after a while it may not go away on its own. (In the early stages it may come and go.) When the swelling stays, changes start happening in your skin and the tissue underneath. The texture becomes harder and sometimes bumpier. You are also at a high risk to get infections in your swollen limb.

What is the lymphatic system?

Lymphedema Patient Arm Photo

The lymphatic system is part of your circulatory system and part of your immune system. It is made up of lymph vessels which are next to the veins. They pump the excess fluid (lymph) from the tissues up to the lymph nodes which are located all over the body. The nodes filter out germs and cell debris. Then the fluid and proteins in the lymph fluid are returned to the blood stream. The lymph nodes also send immune cells around the body to fight infection.

Beware of infections!

Lymphedema puts you at a higher risk to get an infection in the affected limb.

  • Try to avoid any breaks in the skin
  • Clean any break with soap and water or an alcohol swab
  • Watch for these signs of infection:
    redness, pain, swelling, heat, fever and chills, feeling unwell

If you think you have an infection, get medical help right away!

What are the early signs of lymphedema?

  • Affected part feels heavy and achy
  • Limb becomes tired more quickly
  • Skin feels tight and may have indentations when something presses against it

The swelling may start slowly so you don’t notice it at first or it may happen suddenly so your skin feels as if it is going to burst.

What should you do if you start feeling these symptoms?

  • Stop what you are doing right away.
  • Loosen anything that has become tight.
  • Rest with your limb elevated, supported on pillows, above the level of your heart until symptoms improve.
  • Ask your health care provider for a referral to the Lymphedema Specialty Treatment Service.

What is lymphedema treatment?

The best treatment for lymphedema is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). It involves daily sessions that include some or all of the following:


  • Multi-layer gradient compression wrapping: padding and special short-stretch bandages. This is kept on from 1 treatment session to the next.
  • Decongestive exercises: special exercises to help mobilize your lymphatic system.
  • Manual lymph drainage(MLD): a gentle massage-like technique. A session of MLD can last up to 1 hour.
  • Skin care: a way to hel prevent infections by keeping the skin soft and moisturized.
  • Instruction in how to manage your lymphedema after the swelling has reduced:
    • wearing a compression garment during the day
    • either bandaging your limb at night or wearing a special night compression item
    • doing a simplified version of MLD at home
    • continuing to do decongestive exercises
    • carefully watching your limb
    • taking care of your skin

Initial evaluation / treatment schedule

  • Treatment usually starts about 2 weeks after the initial evaluation. Treatment sessions are often daily, 5 days a week, for 1 ½ - 2 hours.
  • At your initial evaluation, please bring any compression garments you have used in the past.
  • Wear loose clothes to every appointment.

Contact us

Contact your health care provider for a referral to the HCMC Physical Therapy Lymphedema Specialty Treatment. Your referring provider may want to check first to be sure that you do not have a blood clot, an infection or other cause of swelling.

To make an appointment call: 612-873-4377

Clinic Location

Department of Physical Therapy
Blue Building, 3rd floor
800 South 8th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55415