How is Lymphedema Treated and Managed?

Lymphedema is treated and managed with Complete Decongestive Therapy, or CDT. CDT is the standard practice for the treatment and management of lymphedema. There are four components of CDT: manual lymph drainage, compression therapy, exercise, and skincare, and all are essential for the best possible outcome. Lifelong management of lymphedema with CDT can give you independence, empowerment, and improved quality of life. CDT has two phases: decongestion and maintenance. The chart below explains how the two phases work together:


Complete Decongestive Therapy

Complete Decongestive Therapy

Phase 1- Decongestion

The goal of Phase 1 is to decrease the swelling in the limb to normal size, or as close to normal as possible while maintaining healthy skin. There are four components to Phase 1:

  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) – This is a light, massage-like technique that is performed for 30-60 minutes and is used to stimulate lymphatic vessels to carry excess fluid from the affected extremity.
  • Compression Therapy – This involves wrapping multi-layered bandages around the affected limb.
  • Exercise – This includes movement of the limb through a range of motion with bandaging in place.
  • Skin Care – The purpose is to inspect skin, provide moisture, and prevent infection.


Phase 1 can last anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, depending on how long it takes to bring down the swelling and improve other symptoms affecting the skin. Your therapist will use measurements and visual examination of the affected areas to decide when your Phase 1 sessions will be complete.

Phase 2 – Maintenance

Once the swelling of your limb has decreased, it is essential to continue your care at home to maintain reduction. Phase 2 is an ongoing part of CDT in which the patient assumes the responsibility of maintaining and improving the treatment results achieved in Phase 1. There are four components to Phase 2:

  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) – This involves your therapist teaching you self-MLD so you can be in charge of your MLD!
  • Compression Therapy – This involves wearing compression garments to keep swelling from returning.
  • Exercise – This includes doing specific exercises to do to help push fluid up and out of your limb.
  • Skin Care – The purpose is to keep skin moisturized to avoid cracking. This also helps to prevent ingrown nails or hangnails that might scrape or cut your skin.


Click here to download a poster version Complete Decongestive Therapy. 


Disclaimer: This website is designed for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional care. The information provided here should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your physician. All medical products require a physician’s prescription.