Lymphedema Program

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid (lymph) in the body's tissues that results in swelling (edema), most often in an arm or leg. Primary lymphedema is caused by an abnormal or inadequate lymphatic system. It may be present at birth, or it may develop later in life, often for unknown reasons. More common is secondary lymphedema, which is caused by damage to the lymphatic system due to surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. Damage to the lymph system slows the normal flow of lymph fluid, causing swelling.

A Common Side Effect of Breast Cancer Treatment - Lymphedema commonly occurs in persons who have undergone surgery and/or radiation to treat breast cancer. It can occur soon after treatment, or it may take several years to develop. If you have faced the challenge of breast cancer surgery or radiation, you may now be dealing with this frustrating, and sometimes dangerous, condition. The professionals in the Deaconess Lymphedema Program offer hope. While lymphedema cannot be cured, we now offer treatment to manage the condition.

Purpose of the Lymph System

The lymphatic network is an important part of the body's immune system that identifies foreign bodies, such as bacteria and viruses and initiating the immune response.

The lymph system also plays a key role in removing waste, proteins, water, fat and cell debris. In untreated lymphedema, these waste products may build up in tissues, often causing a number of complications, including infections and limitations in movement and function.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

  • Clothing may feel tighter on the affected arm or leg.
  • Rings may become difficult to remove from your fingers.
  • A vague sense of heaviness may begin in the affected arm or leg.
  • Decreased prominence of the knuckles or ankles may be noticed.
  • Pain may be present in the affected arm or leg.

Lymphedema Treatment at Deaconess Hospital

Ideally, patients begin treatment as soon as swelling starts to develop. However, it is never too late to begin treatment.

Lymphedema is treated through a process known as complete decongestive therapy (CDT). The goal of treatment is to reduce the swelling in the arm or leg, making it smaller and more manageable. CDT consists of an intensive phase, which includes daily treatment sessions, and a maintenance phase, which continues for the rest of the patient's life.

Intensive Phase  - This phase may include:

  • Manual lymphatic drainage, using massage-like techniques to stimulate lymphatic circulation
  • Mechanical compression bandaging, using short-stretch padded bandages worn 23 hours per day
  • Therapeutic exercise to restore lost strength and flexibility and to increase circulation through the "muscle-pump" mechanism
  • Education in skin care, lymphedema precautions, self-bandaging and lifetime self-management

Maintenance Phase - This phase may include:

  • Self-bandaging - worn while sleeping
  • Compression garments - worn during waking hours
  • Continued compliance with skin care, prevention and exercise

Therapy includes education about self-management of lymphedema so that patients may treat the condition at home and remain independent. The treatment program can be modified at the therapist's discretion to fit the needs of individual patients. Family members are welcome to attend sessions and learn the self-management skills.

Therapist Qualifications

Physical and occupational therapists in the Deaconess Hospital Physical Medicine Department are experienced in the assessment and treatment of lymphedema. In addition to earning a professional degree, our therapists have professional certifications or have attended educational programs dealing specifically with lymphedema.

For More Information

Your doctor will help you decide if the Deaconess Lymphedema Program is right for you. A physician’s referral is required for evaluation and treatment in the program. For more information about the Deaconess Hospital Lymphedema Program, call 812/450-3353 or contact your physician.

Tips for Preventing Swelling & Infection

  • Practice meticulous skin care daily.
  • Keep skin moisturized.
  • Avoid walking barefoot.
  • Wear protective gloves when gardening.
  • Never allow a blood pressure check, injection or blood draw on the affected arm or leg.
  • Don’t wear restrictive clothing such as elastic cuffs.
  • Use an insect repellent to prevent insect bites & stings.
  • Avoid burns, including sunburn.
  • Avoid overheating, including saunas and hottubs.
  • Avoid constriction from tight clothing, socks, undergarments or jewelry.
  • Use an electric shaver rather than a safety razor for underarms.
  • Avoid carrying heavy packages with the involved arm.
  • Wear protective gloves when gardening.


Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid (lymph) in the body's tissues that results in swelling (edema), most often in an arm or leg. Primary lymphedema is caused by an abnormal or inadequate lymphatic system. It may be present at birth, or it may develop later in life, often for unknown reasons. More common is secondary lymphedema, which is caused by damage to the lymphatic system due to surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. Damage to the lymph system slows the normal flow of lymph fluid, causing swelling.

A Common Side Effect of Breast Cancer Treatment - Lymphedema commonly occurs in persons who have undergone surgery and/or radiation to treat breast cancer. It can occur soon after treatment, or it may take several years to develop. If you have faced the challenge of breast cancer surgery or radiation, you may now be dealing with this frustrating, and sometimes dangerous, condition. The professionals in the Deaconess Lymphedema Program offer hope. While lymphedema cannot be cured, we now offer treatment to manage the condition.