Am I at risk for lymphedema?

Your risk for lymphedema depends on a number of factors, including:

  • A family history of chronic (long-lasting) swelling
  • If you had surgery, the number, size and location of lymph nodes removed or damaged
  • If you had radiation therapy or an injury, the degree of damage to your lymphatic system
  • Having chronic venous disease
  • Having a history of skin infections, including cellulitis
  • Being overweight and/or inactive add to these risk factors

Having a risk factor doesn’t mean you’re going to develop lymphedema. But it does mean you’re at a higher risk. In fact, if your lymphatic system is faulty or damaged, you have a lifetime risk for lymphedema.

Lymphedema can develop in any part of the body where the lymphatic system is blocked. For example, if you had lymph nodes removed from your armpit to treat breast cancer, you may develop lymphedema in the arm, chest or back on that side.

We can’t predict who’s going to develop lymphedema. Your body may heal well after treatment and be able to manage the lymph flow in the damaged area. Or, the extent of damage to your lymphatic system may combine with other risk factors and trigger lymphedema during treatment or many years later.

Lymphedema is a lifelong condition. It cannot be prevented or cured but it can be managed. If you are at risk for lymphedema, it’s good to know how to lower your risk and early signs to watch out for.

How can I lower my risk for lymphedema?

If you’re at risk for lymphedema, or living with it, these self-care tips will help:

  • Practice good skin care
    Keep your skin clean, soft and well moisturized to avoid skin infections.
  • Lower your risk for infection
    Take care of scratches, pinpricks, cuts, burns or splinters right away. Get treated for skin problems, including inflammation, fungal infections, ingrown toenails or dermatitis.
  • Try to avoid skin punctures
    If possible, avoid having injections, blood tests or vaccination shots on the side where your lymphatic system may be damaged.
  • Take care of injuries to avoid swelling
    If you have a sprain, fracture, burn or other injury, get it treated so it can heal well.
  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods
    This can promote swelling. Sitting cross-legged is especially hard on your system.
  • Long periods of travel
    Talk to your health professional about ways to look after your lymphedema when on long flights (over 3 hours) or extended travel that requires sitting for long periods of time.
  • Aim for a healthy body weight
  • Avoid high temperatures
    By staying indoors (ideally with air conditioning) in the high heat and humidity of summer, staying away from hot tubs/saunas and taking warm, rather than hot, baths and showers.
  • Avoid tight clothing or jewelry
    Such as rings, watchbands or clothing with heavy elastic (e.g. tight sock tops) on the affected limb.
  • Take it easy!
    Whether you’re travelling or doing your everyday errands, give yourself more time and take extra breaks.

You may find it helpful to speak to a certified lymphedema therapist about your risk for lymphedema and ways to lower it.