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What Is a Lymphedema Sleeve?

A lymphedema sleeve is a compression garment.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2014
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A lymphedema sleeve is a compression garment designed to be worn on the arm to prevent or treat lymphedema in the upper and mid arm. Lymphedema is a swelling of body tissue caused by inadequate lymph drainage, and it is most commonly associated with cancers, where lymph nodes may be removed as part of cancer treatment and the lymphatic drainage system is disrupted. Certain other conditions may cause fluid retention and swelling in the arms and legs, leading to discomfort for the patient and potentially causing problems with daily activities as a result of the pain and swelling.

The lymphedema sleeve is made from an elastic fabric designed to exert even pressure. It is carefully constructed to limit irritation from seams and is worn by prescription from a doctor. Doctors determine how much pressure should be applied and how often the garment should be worn, writing a prescription so the patient can buy an appropriate compression garment. Pharmacists can help patients who are not sure about what kind of garment they should buy, as usually there are several options for filling a prescription.

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The lymphedema sleeve most often comes in a pale brown to peach color, although some companies make darker sleeves for people of color concerned about the visibility of the sleeve. Other companies make decorative sleeves, turning the compression garment into a fashion statement. It is important to make sure the compression offered by the sleeve is appropriate, as too much pressure can make lymphedema worse, and the sleeve needs to be fitted with care.

Breast cancer is a common culprit behind lymphedema of the arm. Patients with cancer of the breast commonly have neighboring lymph nodes removed, including those in the armpit. Lymph can start to back up in the arm as a result, causing swelling. A doctor may prescribe a compression garment during surgical recovery to prevent lymphedema, as it is much easier to treat this condition preventatively. If lymphedema develops, patients may need gentle massage, as well as special garments to address the fluid buildup.

When a lymphedema sleeve is prescribed, patients may want to pick up several so they can rotate them. It's important to wash the garments regularly and to keep the arm clean and dry. Over time, the fiber will stretch, providing less compression. The garments need to be replaced before this happens, as otherwise the patient can be at risk of swelling. If a garment starts to develop a strong smell or feels uncomfortable, it should be discarded.

People who have trouble getting a compression garment like a lymphedema sleeve on can try rolling it up the arm like a pair of tights. Dusting the arm with baby powder beforehand can also help, and will address moisture issues and chafing as well.

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