Lymphedema is swelling caused by an abnormal build-up of lymphatic fluid in a part of the body. Lymphatic fluid is also called “lymph”. Like blood, it flows throughout the human body. It carries white blood cells, antibodies and nutrients.

Lymphedema is a chronic disease that can be controlled.

There are two types of lymphedema:

  • Primary lymphedema is present at birth or develops later for unknown reasons. This type of lymphedema is quite rare
  • Secondary lymphedema occurs after surgery or radiotherapy. In general, this type of lymphedema appears within the first few years following cancer treatment. Most cases of secondary lymphedema are due to breast cancer treatment


The main symptom of lymphedema is swelling in the part of the body affected.

Other symptoms may accompany this swelling:

  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Pain
  • Hardening of the skin
  • Decrease in the flexibility or mobility of the affected body part
  • A feeling that clothes or jewellery are too tight


Treatments enable you to control the symptoms of lymphedema and to prevent numerous complications. Your doctor will suggest the appropriate treatment according to the status of your health.

Treatments to reduce swelling

Multi-layer bandaging reduces swelling of affected body part as much as possible.

A special massage technique called “lymphatic drainage” also reduces swelling.

Treatment to control swelling

Once the swelling has been reduced to the maximum, it is necessary to wear a compression garment during the day and sometimes at night. This garment should be worn on the long-term. It helps control the swelling and prevents numerous complications.

Compression garments must be worn only upon recommendation of a physician. They must be adjusted by a specialist.

Reimbursement of treatments

People with lymphedema can be reimbursed for a portion of the cost of multi-layer bandages and compression garments. To find out more, check out the Bandages and compression garments used to treat lymphedema This hyperlink will open in a new window. page on the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec (RAMQ) website.


If left untreated, lymphedema can:

  • Cause the part of the body affected to swell up to 3 times its original size
  • Increase risk of infection or appearance of sores
  • Result in difficulties performing daily tasks
  • Cause psychological distress

Protection and prevention

You can reduce the risk of lymphedema by following these recommendations:

  • Do moderate physical exercise such as swimming, walking, biking, dancing and yoga
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce compression of your limbs by avoiding the following for instance:
    • Shoulder bags
    • Very tight clothing and jewellery
    • Crossing your legs
  • Reduce your body’s exposure to extreme temperatures by avoiding the following for instance:
    • Intense cold
    • Long periods in heat (hot tubs and saunas)

When you have lymphedema, you can watch your health by following these recommendations:

  • Watch for signs such as swelling, irritation, itching or a rise in temperature any part of your body
  • Protect the skin of affected body part to avoid risk of infection. Wear gardening gloves for instance

People at risk

People who have had surgery or radiotherapy following a cancer can be affected by secondary lymphedema. People who have undergone surgery in the armpit or groin are especially at risk.