If you have lymph nodes removed from your armpit or if you have radiation treatment of that area, you are at risk of developing lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is a permanent swelling in the arm or hand or breast, and can occur shortly after surgery or years later. It's caused by slow or blocked flow of lymph fluid resulting from lymph nodes or vessels being removed or damaged.

It’s important to know the early signs of lymphoedema as according to the Australasian Lymphology Association (ALA), around one in five breast cancer patients are at risk of developing the condition.

Events that can trigger the beginning of lymphoedema may include:

  • Air travel, due to the changes in air pressure
  • Injury to the limb e.g. sprains, fractures, wounds or skin punctures, e.g. mosquito bites, injections, blood tests in the susceptible limb
  • Burdening the limb by carrying heavy bags on the susceptible hand or arm.
  • Infections in the skin on the susceptible limb
  • Exposure to excessive heat including sunburn
  • Constriction on the limb from blood pressure tests, tight clothes, and jewellery or sleep position.
  • The warning signs (published by the ALA) may include; transient swelling of a limb or other region of the body, infection (due to lymph stasis), feelings of aching, heaviness, stiffness in the affected body part or limitation of movement, tightness or temperature changes to areas of the body.
  • The swelling may be aggravated by heat, overuse, sustained positions and prolonged inactivity and be more obvious at the end of the day

If diagnosed and treated early, this distressing and debilitating swelling can be controlled and reduced, infection prevented, the range of movement of the affected area can be improved, and the quality of life for people with the disorder can be greatly enhanced.

In New Zealand the current treatment for lymphoedema is based on the five “cornerstones” of care:

  • Light touch massage
  • Compression bandages or garments
  • Extra special care of the limb / area
  • Paced exercise
  • Medical taping

You will most likely have to make some changes to your day to day life to help accommodate this diagnosis, such as:

  • Adjust clothing to accommodate the swelling or the compression garments
  • Get used to wearing compression garments
  • Consider the extra costs for compression garments and massage therapy
  • Change the way you do household tasks or work
  • Work out ways to fit in time for exercise and massage
  • Learn to take extra special care with your limb and treat cuts and burns promptly.

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