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Lymphedema Management Program

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a build-up of protein rich fluid  in the tissues just below the surface of the skin. It causes swelling in the arm(s), leg(s) or other areas such as the abdomen, chest, breast, back, or head and neck. It may even affect the genital areas. It can affect children and adults (male or female) and fortunately it can be treated or managed.

The number of cases of lymphedema in Canada is not known. It is believed to be an underestimated health problem and is often misunderstood by many health care providers.

The lymphatic system

Lymph fluid is usually colourless and forms normally in the body, moving in a network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. It can drain 2 to3 litres of fluid per day back into the circulatory system. The lymphatic system plays an important role in the body’s ability to fight infection.

Lymphedema occurs when the drainage routes (vessels or lymph nodes) of this system become blocked, damaged or are not properly developed. The build-up of this protein rich fluid causes thickening and hardening of the skin and may increase your risk of infection.

Types of Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is caused by a lymphatic system that is underdeveloped or malformed. There may be a genetic reason for this or it may be of unknown cause. Primary lymphedema may be present at birth or may develop later in life such as during puberty.

Secondary lymphedema results from damage to the lymphatic system. One of the common causes in Canada is from cancer treatment following surgery and/or radiation. Other causes of secondary lymphedema are: infection, burns, obesity or injury to the lymph nodes or vessels. It also can be caused by trauma to the veins from blood clots (deep vein thrombosis), varicose veins and leg ulcers. Lack of muscle movement such as a paralyzed limb may also contribute to lymphedema.  In underdeveloped countries, a parasitic disease called filariasis also causes lymphedema.

The signs and symptoms of lymphedema may include:

  • Clothing or jewellery becoming tighter

  • A feeling of fullness, heaviness, tightness or pressure in the skin or affected  limb

  • Stiffness or less flexibility in an ankle, knee, hand, wrist or shoulder

  • Noticeable swelling

  • Leakage of lymph fluid through the skin of a swollen area

  • Sudden onset of infection of the skin (redness, increased heat and swelling). This is often accompanied by pain, tenderness and sometimes fever. See a doctor immediately if any of these symptoms develop

The best practice management of lymphedema has a holistic, multidisciplinary approach that includes:


  • Exercise to promote lymphatic and venous flow by using the body’s muscle and joint pumps

  • Skin care to maintain hydration of skin and minimize the risk of infection. The use of pH neutral lotions is recommended. For some, an antibacterial cleanser may be advised

  • Risk reduction and education to avoid factors that may make lymphedema worse

  • Pain management, as well as steps to improving your mental, physical and spiritual well-being. Lymphedema is a chronic, lifelong condition that  must be managed and balanced with daily life

  • A specialized massage called manual lymphatic drainage is used to direct lymph fluid

  • Compression therapy involves the use of bandages, garments and sometimes a compression pump

Information Booklet

To reach the Regional Lymphedema Nurse call:

T: (709) 651-6266

F: (709) 651-2394

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