American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Postsurgical Arm Care to Prevent Swelling and Lymphedema

  • Use your surgical arm at mealtime, when combing your hair, and for hygiene.
  • Do not lift anything heavy (over 1 or 2 pounds) until your health care provider gives you permission.
  • Ask what exercises you can do with your arms after surgery. Review the preoperative arm exercises and your Exercise Log. This will be based on your operation, your dressings, and if you have surgical drains. You may have to wait until drains and suture (stitches) around the wound are removed. Exercises and tasks like lifting will help to make your arm stronger and are added later.

Treatment for Lymphedema

  • When lying down, elevate your surgical arm on a pillow to help reduce swelling.
  • You may be advised to elevate your surgical arm above the level of your heart for 45 minutes, twice a day for the first 6 weeks after surgery.
  • Let your surgeon know if you see swelling or feel heaviness in your surgical arm. Treatment will get started. Ask for a referral to a physical therapist or lymphedema specialist.
  • This swelling may go away as the body begins to heal, or it may become a chronic condition. Treatment may also include lymph-draining massage, wearing compression bandages or sleeves, and exercises.

Regular Exercise

Exercise can keep or improve your strength and decrease muscle loss due to inactivity. It can also help with balance, reducing falls, and your overall energy level. Fitness and weight loss may even help lower the risk of some cancers coming back. Review the American Cancer Society Exercise guidelines for cancer patients. Discuss what type of exercise is best for you with your health care team.

Your ability to exercise will depend on:

  • The type and stage of cancer you have
  • Your cancer treatment
  • Your stamina (endurance), strength, and fitness level39

Returning to Work/School

Many factors affect when you can return to work or school. These include the type of job you have, how much lifting you do, and the extent of your operation. Your surgeon will work with you on a safe time to return. Know how much time you can take away from your job (sick time, short- or long-term disability, or unpaid leave).