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Looking after yourself

Looking after yourself

It is important that we take care of ourselves. We explain the four cornerstones of Self-Management: Compression, Skin Care, Healthy Lifestyle and Lymphatic Drainage.

Healthy Lifestyle

As Professor Vaughan Keeley explained in his section about Secondary Lymphoedema, “What is Lymphoedema?” there is a growing number of people presenting with lymphoedema predominantly of the legs due to weight problems. Obesity has an impact on the venous circulation causing high venous pressure in the legs and also impairs lymphatic drainage.

On the positive side, we are seeing evidence of improvement in the lymphoedema with sustained weight loss in many patients and in some to the point where it no longer requires any compression treatment. Although this is very encouraging, it is recognised that for many people, sustained weight loss is difficult to achieve.

Perhaps then, it is no surprise that one of the four cornerstones for good self-management of lymphoedema is a healthy lifestyle incorporating a balanced diet and exercise, or movement as it is sometimes referred to now.

Rebecca Elwell, from our panel of experts, is passionate about this subject and explains why a healthy lifestyle and movement is so important when living with lymphoedema.

Unlike the heart, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump, so we need to help it along. When we move our bodies, our muscles pump and we breathe deeper. These actions increase the flow of lymph around the body.

This prevents or reduces any swelling, as well as helping our body get rid of bacteria and other unwanted substances.

It’s known that movement is good for our heart and lungs. It can help to strengthen our joints and bones, relieve pain and reduce fatigue; it’s also good for our mental health. However not everyone knows it’s great for our lymphatic health too.

A healthy lymphatic system is key to our overall health because the lymphatic system helps defend the body against illness and keeps our body fluids in balance. When the lymphatic system isn’t working properly, fluid builds up in your tissues, which causes swelling (lymphoedema) as well as other health problems.

The British Lymphology Society (BLS) campaign #EveryBodyCan, encourages people with lymphoedema to ‘move’ more throughout the day, every day.

This doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise in the local gym, but simple movements that we can all make as part of our typical day. Sitting still for long periods of time should be avoided, where possible.

Although there are no specific diets recommended for people with lymphoedema, in order to live well eating a healthy balanced diet is very important. Rebecca and the BLS advise the following:

Being over-weight can make your swelling worse and can restrict your activity which again leads to an increase in swelling.

It is important to eat a rainbow of coloured fruits and vegetables daily up to 10 different types a day is recommended by the government but 5 as a minimum along with lean meat or fish or non-meat-based products for vegetarians or vegans e.g. beans/pulses. Carbohydrates should be wholegrain or high fibre versions if possible, e.g. brown rice or pasta and dairy products lower fat/sugar options whenever possible. Remember not all fats are bad cut down on saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats e.g. oily fish, nuts. Always try to avoid processed food, cut down on salt and sugar intake as well as alcohol.

Drinking at least 6-8 glasses of water a day is recommended (water, no added sugar cordial or lower fat milk) and will not increase swelling.

With contribution from Rebecca Elwell Msc Lymphoedema
Macmillan Lymphoedema ANP and Team Leader. BLS Trustee

Being mindful of our weight is our responsibility. Losing weight is achievable. Maintaining a healthy weight, however, can be harder to achieve. We are not dieticians or personal trainers. The advice from the NHS website is very useful and well worth a read.

Skin Care

Skin care is an essential part of daily self-management for people who have lymphoedema or who are at risk of developing lymphoedema. Keeping your skin intact is the first line of defence against developing infection in the affected area and looking after your skin helps it to perform this important function.

Lymphoedema can cause the skin to thicken and become dry, sometimes cracking, which means the skin surface is more likely to become an entry point for bacteria and possible subsequent infection. Regular cleansing and moisturising to keep the skin supple and intact will keep the skin hydrated and in good condition, reducing the risk of developing infection which may worsen your lymphoedema.

Good skin care is an essential component in the self-management of lymphoedema and when performed daily will quickly become a normal part of your routine. If you require any further assistance or guidance, please speak to your lymphoedema therapist or GP who will be able to advise you regarding best management for any specific concerns.

  • Keeping your skin clean

It is important to wash your skin daily but also to ensure meticulous drying. Plain water, or a non-perfumed/bland soap or soap substitute can be used. Extra care should be taken to dry thoroughly between fingers and toes and in skin folds. You should watch out for any signs of fungal infections in these areas such as itching, red, or broken skin which will require prompt treatment with anti-fungal creams or sprays which can be purchased at a pharmacy or prescribed by your doctor. When treating fungal infections on the feet, shoes should also be treated with an antifungal spray to prevent re-infecting yourself when you wear them.

  • Keeping your skin supple and intact

Moisturise your skin each day by applying a non-perfumed moisturising cream or ointment. Your lymphoedema specialist will be able to advise if you require a specific cream, but most creams can be easily purchased via a pharmacy or supermarket or may be prescribed by your GP. When applying cream, go downwards in the direction of hair growth for the last stroke to reduce the risk of irritation at the base of the hairs. If you find it hard to reach to apply creams, then spray creams such as Emollin can be prescribed. Alternatively, long handled applicators or sponges can be helpful or even small, long handled rollers used to paint behind radiators as the heads can be regularly replaced.Some perfumes and perfumed creams can cause irritation which can lead to increased swelling or breaks in the skin, so it is best to avoid anything highly perfumed and to patch test new creams before using. Avoid getting sunburnt which can further dry the skin and cause irritation. Use a high factor (50SPF) sun cream or lotion.

  • Taking care of hands and feet

If you have upper limb lymphoedema, wear protective gloves when washing up or gardening or performing activities which may lead to scratches or cuts.  If you wear compression garments, wear gloves over these rather than remove the garments.If you have lower limb lymphoedema, it is important to wear well-fitting, supportive footwear which covers the whole of the foot and prevents swelling accumulating on the top of your foot or between straps.  Avoid wearing ill- fitting shoes which may rub and cause blisters.  Use clippers or a nail file to maintain your nails rather than scissors to reduce the risk of cuts and, if you are unable to reach or find this difficult to manage yourself, you may wish to visit a podiatrist for this.  Avoid going barefoot, particularly outside, to minimise the risk of infection.

  • Avoiding cuts and bites and breaks to the skin.

It can be difficult to avoid insect bites, but some suggested precautions include wearing long sleeves or trousers to protect areas of swelling, particularly if undertaking activities such as gardening or walking or hiking or foreign travel where you may be more likely to be stung or bitten. Use a good insect repellent making sure to patch test it first. If there is a reaction to the insect bite, you could consider antihistamine creams or tablets and your pharmacist will be able to advise regarding this.If shaving the affected area, it is best to use a battery-operated shaver rather than a wet razor or epilator to avoid creating breaks to the skin. You can use hair removal creams, but these can sometimes cause a reaction, so if you use them, it is important to patch test them first.Avoiding breaks to the skin where possible should also be considered when undergoing medical treatment.  It is not always possible to avoid injections into the affected area, but you should inform the healthcare professional that you have lymphoedema or are at risk of lymphoedema and that they should try to avoid using the affected limb for non-emergencies.  Similarly, you should avoid having blood pressure readings on the affected side.

  • Swelling related to heat

People with lymphoedema sometimes experience more swelling in hot weather.  This cannot be easily avoided, and the increased swelling will usually improve as the weather cools.  However, you should avoid artificially hot settings such as saunas and steam rooms which may increase your swelling.

  • Act quickly with signs of cellulitis

If you develop signs of infection such as redness or rash, increased swelling, the area feels hot to touch, or you feel generally unwell with signs of fever you should seek medical advice as soon as possible. If you develop symptoms out of hours you should telephone 111 if you are in any doubt and inform the operator if you have lymphoedema.


Most people living with lymphoedema will endure the daily ritual of donning and doffing of compression garments. Some garments, typically circular knit, can be supplied ‘off the shelf’, whereas, more bespoke made-to-measure garments, typically flat knit, can be produced to order specific to your limb shape and size. If you feel that you would benefit from made-to-measure garments, discuss this with your GP or lymphoedema therapist. You can see the variety of compression garments, products and aids available on our Virtual Shopping Centre, by visiting “Meet the Suppliers”.

If you do wear made-to-measure compression garments, communication with your therapist is important to ensure that it fits perfectly. The garment and level of compression needs to be comfortable for it to be effective. A garment that constantly rolls down, slides, cuts in, causes tingling or pain is not going to be tolerated for long.

Wearing a compression garment should not be painful. It should not cause skin irritation or slide and ruck. Getting it right can be tricky, but it is worth the effort to ensure that your swelling is optimised long term. Work with your therapist to make sure that as many options are covered as needed to get the best garment. Listen to each other’s suggestions and rationale so that the best solution can be put in place for your swelling.

Lymphatic Drainage

To assist the lymphatics in draining the fluid, there are various forms of lymphatic drainage techniques, which can be performed manually or by using a machine called a compression pump.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)
Carol Ellis, MSc, BSc, PGCert, FHEA and Chair of MLDUK summarises Manual Lymphatic Drainage.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) is more a skin treatment than a form of massage. It is a slow, gentle, low-pressure, rhythmic and repetitive technique which stretches and relaxes the skin, and varies the pressure, in order to increase the functioning of the lymphatic system. A range of specialised movements follow the direction of the lymphatic system, working from the neck down to the limbs.

The gentle stretching techniques stimulate the contractions of the lymphatic vessels, helping to move the lymph forward, whilst pressure changes and circular movements of the skin cause more lymph to be formed from the fluid, protein and waste products present in the tissues. These techniques can help to reduce swelling, bruising and inflammation, and may also reduce pain.

For more information, visit MLD UK on the “Meet the Organisations” page.

Self-Lymphatic Drainage (SLD)
Self-Lymphatic Drainage (SLD) is an effective therapy that people with lymphoedema can do for themselves as part of the self-management plan. There are countless videos online providing demonstrations on how to perform SLD. However, I would suggest asking your lymphoedema therapist to demonstrate and teach you SLD correctly to maximise the effectiveness. The last thing any of us wants, is to do any harm and further damage already compromised lymphatics.

Reflexology Lymph Drainage (RLD)
Sally Kay, Reflexology Practitioner explains more about Reflexology Lymph Drainage (RLD)

Reflexology Lymph Drainage (RLD) is an award-winning reflexology technique which focuses on stimulating the lymphatic reflexes on the feet. The aim is to cause an effect on the lymphatic system in the body. It is a unique sequence that has been researched and developed by Sally Kay, whilst working in Cancer Care. The results appear to support the theory of reflexology.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. Approximately 20% of patients with breast cancer develop secondary lymphoedema of the arm following treatment for breast cancer. Lymphoedema is defined as tissue swelling due to the failure of lymph drainage.

Manual lymphatic drainage massage (MLD) is used to treat conditions other than lymphoedema, and RLD may be used similarly.

For more information, visit Sally Kay on our Meet the Experts page.

Fluoroscopy Guided Manual Lymphatic Drainage? (FG-MLD®)
From our panel of experts, Jane Wigg from LymphVision explains FG-MLD.

Through our clinic at LymphVision, we are able to offer lymphatic mapping to improve MLD drainage, screening to identify a lymphoedema at its earliest failure and pre-surgical mapping to identify areas to be avoided or any complications prior to reconstruction or breast cancer surgery. So, fluoroscopy is not only about mapping but what we have learnt has allowed for us to change our MLD technique and help more people. At LymphVision, we are quite unique in how we carry out this procedure, working as a detective and taking many hours to find the way your lymphatics are draining to assess how to help you best.

For more information visit Jane Wigg on our Meet the Experts page.

Compression Pumps

Naomi Northen-Ellis from Compression Therapy UK, explains more about the benefit of Compression Pumps.

Intermittent Pneumatic Compression is an external pressure using compressed air and a pump. The compression pump works by alternately filling and deflating air chambers in a garment that is worn over the swollen area. The pump fills the air chambers in a sequence that stimulates drainage of lymphatic fluid.

The rhythmic inflation and deflation of the chambers in the garments mimics the muscle pump action and promotes a strong venous return and lymphatic flow. It accelerates the removal of excess fluid in the interstitial tissues via the lymphatic system, reducing oedema volume. The intermittent compression helps soften fibrotic tissue, improves skin tone and assists lymph drainage that may have been compromised by fibrosis. The gentle pulsing action promotes relaxation whilst increasing lymphatic function during and post-treatment.

If you have an MLD therapist that you are in regular contact with, then a good place to start would be to ask for their advice and guidance in approaching different suppliers. Always make sure that you get a free trial before committing to a purchase and do not be pressured into making a purchase after a trial if you did not enjoy using it or found no benefit. You should expect to invest a considerable sum and it is wise to purchase the best you can afford.

For more information, visit Compression Therapy UK on our “Meet the Suppliers” pages.



The new book by Matt Hazledine is available to buy NOW!

25% of pre-tax profits from book sales will be donated to the lymphoedema Research Fund.

Lymphoedema United - You are NOT alone!

Lymphoedema Stories from around the world - Volume 1

34 guests from 14 countries share their story, experiences and top tips.
Supporting Lymphoedema Charities












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Sign up as a Free Member to receive Exclusive Benefits, including access to Articles and Videos from the Experts, a Unique Discount Code from the Suppliers, Members’ Offers and a Quarterly eNewsletter with the latest news from the lymphoedema community.








The new book by Matt Hazledine is available to buy NOW!

25% of pre-tax profits from book sales will be donated to the lymphoedema Research Fund.

Lymphoedema United - You are NOT alone!

Lymphoedema Stories from around the world - Volume 1

34 guests from 14 countries share their story, experiences and top tips. 

Supporting Lymphoedema charities





Become a member

Sign up as a Free Member to receive Exclusive Benefits, including access to Articles and Videos from the Experts, a Unique Discount Code from the Suppliers, Members’ Offers and a Quarterly eNewsletter with the latest news from the lymphoedema community.





Medical Advice Disclaimer


All material on this website is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regime and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

Reliance on any information provided on this website, by our employees and others appearing on the website is solely at your own risk.

For the avoidance of any doubt, Matt Hazledine has lymphoedema and is not a medical professional.


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