Banner Health Services  

Post mastectomy swelling


Michelle Cole, Occupational Therapist, certified in Lymphedema Management, Banner Health

Question:  I had a mastectomy one year ago and now I am noticing swelling and pain in my arm. What could be wrong and what can I do?

Answer:  First, check with your physician. You may be experiencing lymphedema. Lymphedema occurs when lymphatic fluid builds up in the soft tissues of your body, usually the arms or legs. If your lymph vessels or nodes are removed or damaged, the lymph fluid can not move freely through the lymphatic system. The lymph fluids can then build up and cause swelling in the affected arm or legs. Other symptoms such as pain, numbness and decreased movement may also occur.

Lymphedema can be treated but not cured. The symptoms may decrease but you will have to always monitor your limb.

Treatment consists of gentle massage to redirect the lymph fluid and compression bandaging to maintain fluid reduction.

  • Massage. The therapist lightly massages the patient using slow, rhythmic movements that stretch the skin without any friction. This promotes relaxation, reduces pain and provides drainage of lymph fluid.
  • Compression Bandaging. A multi-layer bandage is applied to keep the swelling down and to provide resistance to muscle contractions that occur with lymphatic flow.

At the end of your treatment, you will be fitted for a custom compression garment. This is used to maintain the reduction achieved by your therapist. You will also be taught exercises you can do at home, including self-massage, to manage your condition. Your therapist will also give you tips on how to protect your arm/leg to reduce the chances of future flare-ups.

Typical treatments consist of 18-20 visits with an occupational therapist or physical therapist who is certified in lymphedema management. At the end of treatment, most individuals experience an increase in functional use of the affected extremity.

Page Last Modified: 02/22/2010
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