OSF St. Joseph Medical Center

Lymphedema Therapy

Lymphedema is an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that occurs because of a malfunctioning of the lymphatic system. Lymphedema typically causes swelling of the arms or legs. If lymphedema is left untreated, the risk of infection is higher because of stagnant protein.

Primary lymphedema is caused by an abnormality of the lymphatic system. It may manifest itself at birth or later in life during adolescence or adulthood.

Secondary lymphedema can result from surgical removal of the lymph nodes, radiation therapy, or trauma to the lymphatic system. It may occur immediately after surgery or may not develop for several years.

Who Is It For?

  • Primary lymphedema patients
  • Secondary lymphedema including: post cancer patients such as breast cancer, gynecological cancer, or prostate cancers
  • Patients with swelling due to trauma of the lymphatic system
  • Patients with chronic upper or lower extremity swelling

When should I see a therapist?

Patients should see a Physical or Occupational Therapist if they have:

  • Been diagnosed with primary lymphedema
  • Been diagnosed with any of the following types of cancer: breast, gynecological, or prostate
  • Swelling due to a post-surgical or post-traumatic injury
  • Chronic venous insufficiencies
  • Chronic arm or leg swelling

What Does it Involve?


A thorough evaluation of the patient’s condition will be completed to determine the level of lymphedema, range of motion and strength deficits, functional difficulties, and personal goals.

Individualized Treatment

  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) - This specialized form of manual therapy is utilized to stimulate the lymph system and promote lymph drainage. Therapy is recommended three to five times per week.
  • Multi-Layered Compression Bandaging - Bandaging of the affected limb using short stretch bandages will follow MLD sessions. Self-wrapping and the use of compression garments are taught to promote swelling reduction.


An individualized exercise program is given based on the patient’s deficits for strengthening, flexibility, and endurance to help promote lymph flow and drainage. The patient is encouraged to perform exercises as part of their home program and continue upon discharge from the program.

Skin Care

Instruction in skin care is provided. Lymphedema is a drying condition and it is essential the skin is maintained in good condition to decrease the risk of infection.

Treatment Goals

The goals of treatment are to reduce swelling to enable performance of daily living, return to work and leisure activities, improve functional use of the affected limb, decrease risk of infection, or enhance self-esteem and body image.

Preparing for Your Therapy

Please bring your photo ID and insurance card with you to your first appointment. Wear loose, comfortable clothing to all of your visits.

Please arrive 10-15 minutes prior to your appointment time in order to allow enough time to get changed.

Your evaluation may be scheduled for one and a half to two hours. Follow-up treatment typically last 60-90 minutes.


It is important that you, the patient, are involved in setting the treatment plan and goals with the therapist. Attendance is essential to achieving your goals. If you are unable to attend a scheduled appointment, please call to reschedule. If you “no show” for two appointments, you may be discharged from therapy.