Lymphedema Management and Prevention

Lymphedema is a condition in which swelling (edema) occurs from abnormal accumulation of protein-rich lymph fluid in the space between cells in the body, typically in the arms or legs.

Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC has special programs for lymphedema management, treatment, and prevention.

Managing and Treating Lymphedema

Risk factors for lymphedema include:

  • Modified radical mastectomy
  • Surgical removal of lymph nodes
  • Radiation therapy
  • A Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 25
  • Overuse of the affected limb

While there is no cure for lymphedema, options for managing and treating it include:

  • Weight loss
  • Compression pump therapy
    • Intermittent, sequential pumps that consist of chambers that inflate one at a time while moving up the limb, facilitating the movement of lymph fluid
  • Exercise
    •  The muscle pumping action of exercise promotes the drainage function of the lymphatic system
  • Compression garments (bandaging)
    • Help reduce limb size, decrease hardening, and prevent fluid from re-accumulating
  • Laser therapy
    • May be effective in reducing hardening of the limb, increasing range of motion and scar mobility, all of which assist in improving lymph drainage

The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services offers a network of women's health physical therapists that specialize in lymphedema treatment and management.

The Lymphedema Education, Screening, Early Detection, and Prevention Program

Identifying your risk for developing lymphedema is important for early detection and prevention.

In the United States, the highest incidence of lymphedema occurs following breast cancer surgery, particularly among those who undergo post-surgery radiation therapy.

At the Lymphedema Education, Screening, Early Detection, and Prevention (LESEP) program, our specialists:

  • Focus on people who may be at risk for the disease
  • Use advanced technology to detect lymphedema as early as possible, when it's more treatable and manageable

If your treatment plan for breast cancer includes surgery and/or radiation, your oncologist may refer you to the LESEP program to identify your risk for developing lymphedema.

What can I expect as a patient of the LESEP program?

  • Prior to your breast cancer surgery, specialists will use a non-invasive device to send low-frequency electrical currents through your arms and legs. Because these currents flow faster through fluid than muscle or bone, the procedure provides a baseline of the amount of fluid you’re retaining before your surgery.
  • Specialists will perform the same procedure 90 days after your surgery, and every three months following that.
  • If your baseline number has increased, you may be at risk for developing lymphedema, even though you may not be experiencing physician symptoms. Early detection of lymphedema is critical to delaying the onset of the disease, as you can begin treatment therapy sooner.

The LESEP program also sponsors workshops featuring experts in the detection and management of lymphedema. For upcoming workshop dates and times, or for lymphedema consultation, call 412-641-4274.

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