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Reviewed by: Carrie Tompkins Stricker, PhD, RN

Updated December 17, 2014

Lymphedema happens when lymph fluid builds up in the body, resulting in swelling and other possible symptoms.

Lymphedema can occur at any time after treatment—even many years later. If you develop lymphedema after breast cancer treatment, it usually develops in the tissues under the skin of your hand, arm, breast or torso, on the same side as the cancer. As fluid builds up and the area swells, it can cause pain, reduced movement, serious infections, emotional upset and reduced quality of life.

The amount of swelling with lymphedema can be lessened with early and proper detection, skilled therapy and ongoing self-care. Yet, even if swelling disappears, lymphedema is a chronic condition and remains a health concern for the rest of your life. Despite such challenges, many women successfully manage lymphedema and move forward with their lives.

How Breast Cancer Treatment Can Lead to Lymphedema

The lymph system helps protect your body from infection. Lymph vessels collect fluid and protein from body tissues, and lymph nodes filter unwanted substances (bacteria, cancer cells) out of this fluid.

When axillary lymph nodes and vessels are removed by surgery or damaged by radiation therapy, excess protein-rich fluid can collect in the arm, underarm or chest, resulting in lymphedema.

Symptoms of lymphedema may include:

  • A sense of fullness, skin tightness or swelling in the arm, wrist or hand
  • Decreased flexibility of the wrist or hand
  • Difficulty wearing a ring, bracelet or wristwatch


Except for a few clear factors, we know very little about what causes lymphedema to develop in some people and not in others. Some factors that may increase your risk for developing lymphedema are:

  • Being overweight or gaining a lot of weight after surgery
  • Having an arm injury or infection on the side you had surgery
  • Putting sudden or sustained stresses on upper body muscles (such as with lifting heavy suitcases)

Lymphedema Treatment

Once it has developed, lymphedema is usually a lifelong condition. Early intervention may improve your responsiveness to treatment.

Complete decongestive therapy consists of a special, very light massage called manual lymphatic drainage, wrapping with special compressive bandages (not ACE wraps) and specific exercises. After swelling is reduced, a compression garment (sleeve, glove or bra) should be worn during the day with bandaging at night.

Reducing Your Risk

There is little research on ways to reduce your risk for developing lymphedema, but experts offer a few tips:

  • Avoid getting vaccinations, injections, blood draws or blood pressure testing on the side of the body where you had surgery.
  • Clean cuts and scrapes quickly and apply an antibiotic to prevent infection.
  • Keep your weight down.
  • Wear a compression sleeve during air travel.
  • Use insect repellent to avoid bug bites.
  • Avoid wearing tight jewelry, clothing or cuffs, and do not carry heavy objects with the side of the body that is at risk.
  • Avoid extreme cold or heat.
  • Avoid cutting cuticles.
  • Exercise with guidance from a trained lymphedema professional or your doctor.
  • Protect your hands, fingers and arms while cooking, baking, gardening, cleaning, sewing and doing other tasks.

Read more about lymphedema and the providers who helped us write this page in our Guide to Understanding Lymphedema.