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Occupational Therapy for Lymphedema

UC San Diego Health provides comprehensive and compassionate rehabilitation services for patients with lymphedema.

Our occupational therapists are certified lymphedema therapists (CLTs) with years of experience, knowledge and specialized training.

Treating Lymphedema

We provide a high level of care in the treatment of lymphedema including:
  • Home program
  • Patient and family education
  • Referral to community services and vendors

Complete or complex decongestive therapy (CDT) can be used to treat moderate to severe cases of lymphedema. All of our therapists are clinically trained in this non-invasive form of treatment.

Treatment approaches used in CDT:

Active range of motion, stretching and strengthening exercises

Manual lymph drainage

Low-stretch bandaging

Skin care

Compression garments

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that causes swelling of a body part, usually an arm or a leg, but may also affect the face, neck, breast, abdomen or genitals. The swelling occurs when a protein-enriched fluid accumulates outside of the lymphatic system. This accumulation can occur in two ways:

1. Primary lymphedema
Primary lymphedema occurs without any obvious cause. It may be present at birth due to improper development of the lymphatic system. Primary lymphedema occurs more frequently in women than men. The lower extremities are most commonly affected.

2. Secondary lymphedema
Secondary lymphedema can develop as a result of surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. Specific surgeries, such as surgery for melanoma, breast, gynecological, head and neck, prostate, testicular, bladder or colon cancer put patients at risk for developing secondary lymphedema.

Rehab can help:

  • Decrease lymphedema (fluid build-up) and infection
  • Promote wound healing
  • Decrease fibrotic tissue hardening
  • Increase functional mobility and quality of life

Lymphedema Symptoms

Symptoms of lymphedema can include:

  • Swelling
  • Body parts feel heavy or full
  • Clothing feels tight but no apparent weight gain
  • Changes in skin (stiffness, redness)
  • Tingling or aching
  • Loss of flexibility

Lymphedema is usually confined to the area in which surgery occurred. For example, breast cancer-related lymphedema is generally found in the arm, hand and trunk.

Quick Diagnosis

Not sure if you have lymphedema?
If you answer "yes" to any of the following questions, you may be a candidate for treatment:

  • Have you had surgery for cancer of the breast, head and neck, cervix, uterus, prostate or skin?
  • Have you had chemotherapy or radiation treatment?
  • Does your arm, leg, face or trunk tire easily, especially with activity?
  • Does your arm or leg seem larger than the other limb?
  • Have you noticed discomfort at the shoulder, elbow, knee, ankle, face, neck or trunk?
  • Does your skin feel too tight?
  • Are the joints of your hand, knee or ankle less flexible?
  • Have you had a recent infection?
  • Did a recent airplane flight cause swelling or tightness in your arm or leg?