What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling of a body part (usually arms or legs). This can occur after radiation or removal of lymph nodes.

Your lymphatic vessels drain extra fluid, which goes through your lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes filter the fluid and help protect you from infection.

When lymph nodes are removed, your lymphatic system is damaged. This protein-rich fluid can build up in your tissues and cause swelling.

Lymphedema can develop right away after surgery or many years later.

Symptoms of lymphedema

Lymphedema symptoms include:

  • tight-fitting clothing or jewelry
  • heavy, tight feeling in your arm or leg
  • tingling feeling in your arms or legs
  • swelling of body parts
  • aching feeling in your arm or leg or an arm or leg that becomes tired more easily.

Lymphedema diagnosis

An examination by a doctor is necessary to correctly diagnose lymphedema.

For an appointment with a lymphedema specialist, call Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute's central scheduling line at 612-262-7900.

Lymphedema facts


What can lead to lymphedema?

The following can begin the process of lymphedema:

  • surgery to remove lymph nodes
  • tumor
  • injury to lymph nodes
  • long-standing circulatory problems

Source: Allina Health Patient Education, The Lymphedema Treatment Program at Courage Kenny® Rehabilitation Institute, pt-ahc-21175 (6/09); Allina Health Patient Education, How To Manage Lymphedema, pt-ahc-14216 (4/07)
Reviewed By: Allina Health Patient Education experts, including Nancy Hutchison, MD, CLT-LANA, medical director, Cancer Rehabilitation and Lymphedema, Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and Virginia Piper Cancer Institute
First Published: 06/01/2009
Last Reviewed: 06/01/2009