How can I manage my lower extremity lymphoedema?

Take care of your skin

Taking care of your skin on the affected limb to reduce the risk of infection is essential in the prevention and management of lymphoedema. Part of the lymphatic system is a fine network of vessels running just below the skin. These vessels help to remove any extra fluid and waste substances from the body’s tissues. It is therefore essential to look after the skin to prevent it becoming dry, cracked or broken. Damaged skin can lead to an infection called cellulitis, which can increase the risk of developing lymphoedema.

  • Cleanse and moisturise your skin daily with unscented soap and cream using gentle upward strokes.
  • Protect yourself against excessive heat, which can increase swelling. Avoid hot baths or showers, saunas and extreme temperatures.
  • Use nail clippers or emery boards rather than scissors. Do not cut your cuticles.
  • Use electric razors instead of normal razors or hair-removal creams.
  • Try to avoid cuts, scratches, burns and insect bites and use antiseptic and antifungal creams when necessary. Monitor any cut, no matter how small – even a rag nail.
  • Try to avoid walking around barefoot as you may damage the skin on your foot.
  • Contact your doctor immediately if you notice that your skin has become red, hot and tender, as you may have an infection. This infection is often referred to as cellulitis and it is important to get this treated quickly with antibiotics.

Exercise regularly

Gentle rhythmic exercises will help to pump your muscles and remove the build-up of lymph.

  • Exercise is important, but remember to gradually build up your level of activity over time. In most cases you will be able to continue with the exercises and activities you enjoyed before your cancer treatment.
  • Always do a ‘warm up’ and ‘cool down’ before and after exercise. Ask your physiotherapist for advice.
  • If you are at risk of leg lymphoedema, avoid long periods of standing in one position.

To reduce your risk of leg lymphoedema, try the following:

  • Tighten your buttocks, hold for 5 seconds, then relax. Tighten thigh muscles, hold for 5 seconds, then relax.
  • Bend and straighten your knees, one at a time.
  • Move your foot up and down at the ankle.
  • Circle your foot to the left and the right.

Avoid trauma to your limb

Avoid tight, restrictive clothing, such as tight bra straps and watches, tight belts and tight underwear.
It is very important to keep your weight within normal limits, as excess weight can increase strain on the lymphatic system.
Try to avoid sunburn and insect bites.

Take care when travelling

Flying with long periods of inactivity can affect circulation and lymph movement. It may even trigger lymphoedema in people at risk of developing it.
Stretch and move around as much as possible when travelling.
There is no evidence to suggest that wearing a compression garment when flying reduces the risk of developing lymphoedema. An inappropriate garment may cause more problems.
Prevent dehydration by frequently drinking water.

Irish Cancer Society Logo221+ Patient Support Group thanks the Irish Cancer Society for permission to use the text of their booklet Reducing Your Risk of Arm and Leg Lymphoedema
and acknowledges the contribution of the original authors of the booklet.