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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

Regular exercise reduces swelling by helping lymph vessels move lymph out of the affected area.

Manual lymph drainage

A gentle, noninvasive massage technique used to reduce swelling and encourage natural drainage of the lymph (fluid in the lymphatic system). While this type of therapy can be administered by patients and their caregivers, it’s important that it is done in a very specific way (speak with your therapist prior to attempting).

Low-stretch bandaging

This is a choice treatment for moderate to severe lymphedema and is a primary component of CDT. Bandaging involves creating a soft, multilayered wrap around the affected area. One of our skilled specialists will show you proper bandage techniques so you can continue this treatment at home.

Skin care

Lymphedema disrupts your body's local immune defense, which greatly increases your risk for infection. Vigilant skin care and good hygiene prevents infection by discouraging bacteria from collecting.

Compression garments

Compression garments are a popular treatment option for mild lymphedema, but can also be used to address moderate to severe lymphedema. Made of flexible fabric, compression garments apply the right amount of pressure to the affected area and keeps lymph moving.

Compression garments should:

  • Cover the entire area that's swollen
  • Not be too loose or baggy
  • Be comfortable
  • Provide support but not be too tight
  • Be tailored specifically to your body

You can have a compression garment made for the:

  • Arm
  • Leg
  • Breast
  • Chest
  • Genitals
  • Head
  • Neck

Compression garments come in different grades of pressure. It's important that the garment is fitted just for you and the grade matches your degree of lymphedema. Our therapists will carefully examine you to ensure the right size and grade.

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?