Controlling Chronic Lymphedema – A Surmountable Challenge

Hear ye, hear ye, lymphedema people! Good news! Chronic lymphedema can be controlled. Mine (involving my left arm) came about as a result of breast cancer surgery and radiation in 1996. Today my affected arm is not noticeably larger than the other.


It’s important to find resources on this condition. My main source of information is the National Lymphedema Network (NLN), which provides a wealth of facts on its website (  If you notice swelling in a limb or your trunk or breast, go to a knowledgeable physician. I found a breast surgeon who gladly wrote out a prescription for me to see a certified lymphedema therapist. The NLN provides information about the standards necessary for certification of professionals in this business.  


The standard acceptable treatment for chronic lymphedema in the United States is complete decongestive therapy (CDT). In the first phase of this lymphatic therapy the therapist performs a massage technique called manual lymph drainage (MLD), which redirects the lymph fluid through alternative pathways. Then he or she applies lymphedema bandages, which remain on the arm for 24 hours. Every weekday for six weeks the bandages were removed for massage and reapplied. 


After lymphatic treatment by the therapist, the patient transitions to the self-maintenance stage, in which the lymphedema patient cares for the limb for a lifetime. In this phase of lymphedema management I wore a lymphedema compression sleeve to control swelling during the day and then applied bandages at night. In addition, I performed self-massage and gentle exercises that the therapist taught me.


Alternatives to bandages exist on the market. The lymphedema therapist is a good source to determine suitable substitutes for a particular patient. Brand names include Reid, Circaid, Sigvaris and Jovi. Other lymphedema vendors, at least for sleeves, include Jobst, Juzo, and Medi. After six months of bandaging I chose the Reid sleeve with the help of medical professionals. This garment and its sisters maintain compression using Velcro straps and/or special foam patterns. I found my Reid sleeve a true godsend, since it eliminated the need for wrapping and unwrapping as well as rolling bandages every night.


After a year using the Reid sleeve I found I didn’t need it anymore at night to keep the swelling under control. So now I wear only the lymphedema sleeve on my arm daily with no night-time garment. On a plane trip or climbing a sizeable mountain, I wear an old compression sleeve over my current one, for extra protection against swelling. Also I don a hand glove if necessary.


Swimming is great exercise for arm lymphedema. I joined a club with an indoor pool just to get the year-round benefits that such a pool offers. Also, active elongation exercises on a resistance ball help to stretch scars to increase flow of the lymph fluid to the bloodstream.


Lymphedema patients who are frequent fliers should be careful that their equipment is not damaged by overzealous security guards at the airport. Here are my gems of advice, based on personal experience: bring a prescription slip describing any special arm garments or pumps being brought aboard the plane and check as baggage as many lymphedema devices as possible. 


Herbal supplements may keep chronic lymphedema under control, but they are not regulated by the FDA and might interfere with chemo and other drugs. Before taking any, the lymphedema patient should check first with his/her oncologist. While benzopyrenes and horse-chestnut are mentioned most commonly as controlling chronic lymphedema, I find, with my doctor’s blessing, that Butcher’s Broom controls swelling in my hand.


Don’t let chronic lymphedema interfere with your daily activities. Many lymphedema patients enjoy near normal lives by practicing moderation and complying with sage advice to the extent necessary to tamp down lymphedema swelling.