Merck Manual

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Quick Facts



The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision May 2021| Content last modified May 2021
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What is lymphedema?

Lymph is fluid that oozes out of your tiniest blood vessels. The fluid goes between your cells and brings nourishment and carries away damaged cells, cancer cells, and germs. Lymph then travels through tiny tubes called lymphatic vessels. The vessels carry lymph from your tissues to collection points called lymph nodes.

Edema means "swelling."

Lymphedema is swelling of an arm or leg because lymph flow is blocked.

  • Lymphedema usually results from having lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes removed or damaged (such as during surgery or radiation for cancer)

  • It can rarely result from a birth defect

  • Lymphedema has no cure, but special massages along with pressure stockings and bandages can help with the swelling

  • Doctors and nurses avoid drawing blood, taking blood pressure, or starting an IV in an arm or leg with lymphedema

What causes lymphedema?

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

One arm or leg swells up and looks puffy but has a normal color. It may feel tight, but it doesn't hurt. After you've had lymphedema for a while, the skin where the lymphedema is may be a darker brown color than your normal skin.

How can doctors tell if I have lymphedema?

How do doctors treat lymphedema?

Lymphedema has no cure. The following may help lessen your swelling:

  • Elevating the swollen limb to help the fluid drain (for example, keeping your foot up on a stool)

  • Special massages to help drain fluid

  • Arm or leg movements suggested by your doctor to help move the fluid

  • Pressure bandages or stockings to wear on the swollen arm or leg

  • Rarely, surgery to remove the swollen tissues under the skin and to help lymph drain

It's important to avoid injuring an arm or leg with lymphedema. Also, if you have an arm with lymphedema, don't have your blood pressure taken on that arm or have blood drawn or an IV started. That could make your lymphedema worse.

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