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Reducing Your Risk for Lymphedema After Breast Surgery

After breast surgery, fluid may collect and cause swelling in the arm on the side of your surgery. This is called lymphedema. It occurs after lymph nodes under the arm are removed or the underarm area is treated with radiation therapy. The normal flow of fluids in the arm is then reduced. To help make developing lymphedema less likely, follow the tips on this handout.

Healthcare provider drawing blood from woman's arm.
Be sure to have blood drawn only from the non-affected arm (except in the case of an emergency).

Avoid excess use of the affected arm

  • Carry purses and heavy packages with the arm on your non-operated side.

  • Don’t avoid using your affected arm. Use it to do light tasks such as dusting, writing, and weeding.

  • Build strength in the affected arm with gentle moves such as making a fist.

Keep fluid moving to prevent swelling

  • If at all possible, don't let anyone draw blood from your affected arm. Do not have injections or blood pressure tests on that arm.

  • Raise your affected arm above your heart when you sit or lie down.

  • Don’t wear tight sleeves, elastic cuffs, bracelets, wristwatches, or rings on your affected arm or hand.

Protect your arm and skin from infection

  • Wear gloves when you garden or handle garbage.

  • Wash, treat, and cover even the smallest cut.

  • Use an electric razor if you shave under your arms.

  • Don’t pick at or cut the skin around your fingernails.

  • Be careful to prevent sunburns and burns from cooking or smoking.

Call the doctor if your arm is:

  • Swollen or red

  • Hot

  • Painful

Online Medical Reviewer: Song, David H, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Wetter, L Albert, MD
Last Review Date: 9/7/2013
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.