Advance with MUSC Health

Defying the Swell: Unlocking the Secrets to Managing Lymphedema

Advance With MUSC Health
July 20, 2023
Person using a tape measure to measure their swollen foot.

Ever wondered about the mysteries of lymphedema? MUSC Health Florence Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation Center’s Evelyn LeBron-Cooper, MBA, OTR/L, CLT — acute care rehabilitation manager, outpatient/inpatient occupational therapist, and certified lymphedema therapist— takes us on an enlightening exploration into this condition that causes patients' swelling and discomfort. Here, we'll uncover its causes, symptoms, and even a treatment that can help you tackle lymphedema head-on.

First things first: what is lymphedema?

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema, or lymphatic obstruction, is a condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling that can affect one or multiple extremities.
You can have primary or secondary lymphedema.

Primary lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is a hereditary condition. It typically affects the lower extremities, such as the legs. It can mostly affect women and develops at puberty. It usually starts with gradual swelling in the foot.

Risk factors for primary lymphedema:

  • Family history of swollen limbs
  • Unexplained swelling of feet or ankles
  • Overweight

Secondary lymphedema

Secondary lymphedema may occur in anyone who has had treatment or injury that damages the lymphatic system.
It is most commonly caused by cancer treatments such as surgery to remove lymph nodes, mastectomy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Other potential causes include excess weight, circulatory concerns, and other conditions that reduce or limit muscle movement.

Risk factors for secondary lymphedema include the following:

  • Cancer treatment involving lymph node removal or radiation therapy
  • Damaged skin or scars from burns, injuries, or surgery
  • Being overweight
  • Joint replacement surgery
  • Circulatory problems causing swelling
  • Multiple sclerosis, paralysis, or other conditions that limit muscle movement

Lymphedema Symptoms

It usually begins with gradual swelling of the foot. Here are a few more signs and symptoms.

Signs and symptoms:

  • A “full” sensation to the arm or leg
  • Swelling of part or all of the arm, leg, fingers, or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Recurring infections
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)

Treatment of lymphedema is recommended as it can cause several complications leading to skin infections, sepsis, blistering, draining, and skin texture changes, making it firm.

Lymphedema Treatment

Lymphedema is not curable; however, certain treatments can help control symptoms. Patients may benefit from complete decongestive therapy (CDT), a reliable noninvasive treatment that can provide positive long-term results for both primary and secondary lymphedema patients.

So what’s involved when it comes to complete decongestive therapy?

  • Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)
  • Good skincare
  • Specialized compression bandaging
  • Measurements and fitting of compression
  • Patient-specific exercises
  • Self-care
  • Education in risk-reduction practices

How MUSC Can Help

At MUSC Health Florence Medical Center’s Outpatient Clinic, the lymphedema management program can offer treatment for individuals affected by primary or secondary lymphedema.

A certified lymphedema therapist will teach individualized self-care and risk-reduction practices, measure and fit compression garments, and develop patient-specific exercises.

For more information on lymphedema management or other MUSC Health Florence Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation programs, please call 843-661-4360 or visit