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, and all are essential for the best possible outcomes. 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

Phase 1 or 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 I 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 affecting areas to decide when your phase I sessions will be complete.

Phase 2 or Maintenance

Once the swelling as decreased from your limb, it is essential to continue your care at home to maintain this reduced size. Phase 2 is an ongoing part of CDT in which the patient assumes the responsibility for 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 to teach you self-MLD so you can be in charge of your MLD!
  • Compression Therapy – This involves wearing compression garments to keep swelling from coming back.
  • Exercise – This includes specific exercises to do to help push fluid up and out of your limb.
  • Skin Care – The purpose is to keep skin moistured to avoid cracking. This also helps prevent ingrown nails or hangnails that might scrape or cut your skin.



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