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Lymphedema: How Occupational Therapy Can Help

Updated: Jul 29, 2020


A Certified Lymphedema therapist, like our own Olivia McKee, will play an important part in your health care team. She will develop a personalized treatment program to help control the swelling and meet your goals for returning to activity.

In the early stages of lymphedema, mild swelling can often be conservatively managed with manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression garments, exercise, and elevation of the affected limb to encourage lymph flow. More severe or chronic swelling typically requires the addition of compression bandaging to reduce swelling prior to being fitted with compression garments. At your first appointment (initial evaluation), the therapist will take measurements of the swollen limb and the opposite limb for comparison. Your treatment session will also include education regarding the diagnosis of lymphedema and your therapist will establish an individualized plan of care to address your case.

Your treatment sessions will include Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) which is a specialized “massage” that uses very light pressure to create a stretching of the skin. This massage enhances lymphatic flow. You will be taught how to perform MLD at home. After MLD, in appropriate cases, compression bandaging will be applied. The therapist will assess the effect of the MLD and bandaging at each session and make adjustments as needed.

Patients are taught how to maintain the progress achieved in therapy, educated on risk reduction techniques, given skincare recommendations to help prevent wounds and infection, and are given general dietary and exercise recommendations.

Once the swelling has decreased and measurements indicate a stabilization, the patient is measured and fitted with appropriate compression garments. The most common complaints about compression garments involve donning (putting the garments on) and doffing (removing them). Compression is an important part of maintaining control of swelling and therefore it is imperative that each patient is fitted with the correct compression garment and that they are able to don and doff independently. Each patient will receive detailed instructions on how to manage their garments.


Although all occupational therapists and physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a variety of conditions, lymphedema should be treated by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT). CLT’s are required to complete a minimum of 135 hours of coursework, including 90 hours of practical, face-to-face laboratory instruction. For more information regarding CLT requirements, see “Training of Lymphedema Therapists” at

General tips when you're looking for a Lymphedema trained therapist or other health care provider:

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact an occupational or physical therapist for an appointment, ask about his or her experience in treating patients with lymphedema.

During your first visit with the therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and give a good account of your health history.

The internationally recognized best treatment for lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy, consisting of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), Meticulous Skin Care, Multi-Layer Compression Bandaging &/or fitting with appropriate compression garments, Decongestive exercises, and education. This treatment should be done by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT), and preferably one who is also LANA certified (Lymphology Association of North America). Olivia McKee is both!

Check out our other Lymphedema blog to learn even more about what Lymphedema is and treatment.



Olivia McKee is our Lymphedema Specialist on the Advanced Physical Therapy team. Olivia treats patients in the Little Rock area and actually sees patients from all over the state. Explore our other articles about Lymphedema and how Olivia can help! If you have any questions or would like to book an appointment with Olivia McKee, call our Advanced Physical Therapy office in Little Rock, Arkansas: 501-224-5454.

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