shutterstock_505081366 (1)

The SoWH Blog

Stay up to date on the latest Section HQ news, patient and practitioner education and member stories!

All Posts

Lymphedema: Causes, Symptoms, Physical Therapy Treatment

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which the lymphatic system of the body is unable to properly transport lymph fluid from the tissue spaces back to the blood stream, leading to swelling in the limbs, trunk, genitalia, head, neck, or anywhere there is lymphatic tissue. Protein-rich lymphatic fluid is different than typical edema or swelling and can only be drained by the lymphatic vessels.  Because lymphedema is often mechanical in nature (meaning the structure of the lymphatic system is compromised), lymphedema is a life-long condition.  Finding and addressing lymphedema early helps ensure faster, more successful outcomes.  However, individuals with chronic lymphedema can also benefit significantly from physical therapy interventions.  There is no cure, but the condition can be managed successfully.


What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema has a variety of causes including but not limited to: trauma, surgical intervention (ex: lymph node removal during surgery for breast or other cancers), heredity, infection, radiation treatment, or late effects of cardiovascular disease. Surgical removal of lymph nodes near the axilla (armpit) due to breast cancer is the most common cause of lymphedema in the United States; undergoing radiation after this surgery increases the likelihood of developing lymphedema.


What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

Swelling is the main symptom of lymphedema, which is often localized to one body region or limb.  Swelling may also be caused by other organ systems (especially the heart and kidneys) or musculoskeletal injury.  A detailed examination performed by a healthcare provider will determine the cause of the swelling and the appropriate treatment.  Other symptoms of lymphedema include recurrent infections, pain, heaviness or hardening of the affected limb, and swollen lymph nodes.


How can physical therapy help?

Physical therapists who are specially trained can help individuals with lymphedema regain function and movement.  Treatment includes manual lymphatic drainage, compression bandaging, and movement.  Guidance on compression garments, exercise and skin care for management at home in also provided for when therapy is discontinued. 


Who should be referred to a lymphedema-trained physical therapist for lymphedema therapy?


Those with:

  • Swelling in the arm or leg after treatment for cancer

  • Trouble getting jewelry on (rings, watches, bracelets) or having sleeve garments fit correctly

  • Lack of knowledge about the condition and prevention of lymphedema

  • “Pitting” in the tissues (where an indentation is made by a finger or pressure to the area which then takes time to ‘fill in’ after the pressure is removed)

Looking for a Physical Therapist that specializes in lymphedema?

Visit our PT Locator that will allow you to find PTs by zip code and specialty including lymphedema. Visit

Section on Women's Health
Section on Women's Health
Section on Women’s Health-American Physical Therapy Association (SoWH) is a professional association of more than 3,000 physical therapists. Members provide the latest evidence-based physical therapy services to everyone from childbearing women to peri-menopausal mothers, young athletes to men with incontinence or other pelvic health complications. To learn more, visit

Related Posts

Getting Past Your Leaking Excuses

The excuses we give for not treating our incontinence and tips for overcoming them. For many of us, leaking (aka peeing our pants unintentionally) when we sneeze, cough, giggle, jump, or exercise (pretty much just enjoying and living our lives) has become an acceptable norm. It’s part of being a woman and a mother, right? When lucky enough to feel the possibility of a leak, we take the preemptive step of crossing our legs, but at less fortunate moments, we quietly hope the leaking aftermath can be managed with the absorption power of a bundle of stiff toilet paper from the nearest public bathroom.

Embarrassed or Shy to Talk to Your Primary Healthcare Provider?

It is important that your primary healthcare provider (physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant) know about everything that has to do with your body, your health and how you feel.

Urinary Incontinence: Causes, Symptoms, Physical Therapy Treatment

What is Urinary Incontinence? Urinary incontinence refers to accidental leakage of urine. There are several types of urinary incontinence including stress, urge, mixed and functional incontinence.