What Is a Compression Sleeve for Lymphedema?

How a Compression Sleeve Helps With Arm Lymphedema

Lymphedema can be uncomfortable, and a compression sleeve is often worn to help relieve symptoms. This is an elasticized garment that can help alleviate pain and swelling. Breast cancer is the most well-known cause of lymphedema, and lymphedema can also occur with medical conditions that cause damage to the lymphatic vessels.

Studies suggest that regularly wearing a compression sleeve can control symptoms and may also keep lymphedema from developing in the first place.

Read on to learn more about the benefits of compression garments, the various kinds of compression sleeves, and how to wear them.

Hand with elastic wrist and arm support for relieving injury
BonNontawat / Getty Images

Understanding Lymphedema

Lymphedema occurs when damage to lymphatic vessels causes the normal flow of lymph to be disrupted. With nowhere to go, this fluid builds up, causing swelling in the affected region.

Lymphedema after breast cancer treatment is common, though estimates of the incidence vary. It may occur anytime after treatment, from immediately after surgery, to decades after treatment is over.

With breast cancer and cancers such as melanoma, lymphedema occurs most commonly when lymph nodes are removed as part of staging or treatment of cancer.

Lymphedema may also occur with or without lymph node dissection for other reasons:

  • Due to the formation of scar tissue near the lymphatic vessels after surgery or radiation
  • When lymphatic vessels are cut or damaged during surgery
  • When tumors grow and compress lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels

Benefits of Compression Sleeves

Compression garments work by creating a pressure gradient, causing the flow of fluids away from the area where they are accumulating.

Role in Symptom Management

Compression garments can help reduce the pain and swelling associated with lymphedema.

Role in Prevention

In the past, it was thought that the primary role of compression sleeves was to control symptoms of lymphedema and that active prevention was not possible, but this view may be changing.

A 2017 study looked at the regular use of compression sleeves (15 to 21 millimeters of mercury, or mm Hg) on the later occurrence of lymphedema in women who had axillary lymph node procedures (such as an axillary lymph node dissection or sentinel node biopsy) for breast cancer. In those who wore compression sleeves, less post-operative swelling was noted a month after the procedure. Additionally, the benefits appeared to last far beyond this, and less arm edema was noted at three months, six months, nine months, and even 12 months following the surgery.

Both groups underwent a standardized exercise program as well, and it's not certain what the results of this study would show without regular physical activity.

Limitations

There are a few drawbacks to wearing compression garments. They can be uncomfortable, and warm, especially during the summer months. Aesthetically, some people find them unattractive.

A 2018 study found that wearing compression sleeves did not reduce physical activity or lower the quality of life for women who wore these garments regularly for one year.

Types

There are a variety of compression garments from which to choose. Knowing more about them can help you make the best choice for your needs.

  • Sleeves: Compression sleeves usually extend from the wrists to the upper arms and come in a number of different styles and materials.
  • Gloves: Gloves, such as fingerless gloves, are often worn along with a compression sleeve. For some people, wearing a compression sleeve results in more edema in the hand, which can be reduced by combining the sleeve with a glove.
  • Upper arm to hand: These sleeves typically go from the upper arm to the middle of the hand, with cutouts for the thumb and the top of the hand. They do not encase the fingers. These come in a variety of materials, colors, and patterns, like many other compression garments.
  • Upper arm to wrist: This sleeve covers from the upper arm down but stops at the wrist, with no hand coverage.
  • Bilateral or dual-arm: Bilateral or dual-arm compression garments have two sleeves, one for each arm. These are often connected across the back, with fabric across the shoulders.

Buying a Compression Sleeve

It's important to work with a reputable retailer or lymphedema therapist when purchasing a compression sleeve. A poor-fitting sleeve may worsen symptoms of lymphedema.

Coverage and Fit

When trying on sleeves, make sure that the sleeve is not too tight in areas such as your wrist or elbow. If you experience any numbness or tingling, it could be caused by a sleeve that's too tight.

The sleeve should cover the entire area where you experience swelling and it should be comfortable, but not loose. The compression should feel uniform over the entire sleeve.

Once you have your sleeve it's important to listen to your body. If your symptoms seem to worsen or are not improving, you may need to try a different product.

Wearing Your Compression Sleeve

Wearing your compression sleeve can reduce pain and swelling. The benefits can vary depending on when you wear it and whether you have a sleeve that fits comfortably.

Timing

Most commonly, sleeves are worn during the day and removed at night. For some people rebound edema occurs when the sleeve is removed at night, and adjustable night sleeves may be helpful.

Important Times to Wear Your Sleeve

The most important time to wear your sleeve is during exercise or when you will be experiencing the pressure changes associated with air travel.

Some people need to wear a compression garment 24 hours a day, while others only need to wear them during air travel.

Daily Use

Ideally, you should don your compression sleeve each morning after you shower (if you shower in the mornings), as lymphedema is usually at its minimum upon awakening.

Your arm should be completely dry, and if you apply lotions, the area should be allowed to dry completely before you put the sleeve on.

Well-cared-for sleeves often last for around six months before they need to be replaced.

What to Ask When Buying Your Sleeve

When you purchase your sleeve, ask to see the best way to apply the sleeve so that it fits on easily and without wrinkles.

Summary

Compression sleeves can help reduce lymphedema symptoms, increase your comfort, and potentially reduce the risk of complications. That being said, they do not fix the underlying cause.

You and your treatment team will talk about your situation and what kind of compression sleeve may be best for you. There is a variety from which to choose, and they will tell you when you should wear it and in what situations it is needed.

A Word From Verywell

More research is being done on lymphedema, especially the causes and prevention, which will help guide treatment. Compression sleeves are beneficial for minimizing pain and preventing future swelling. They are used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes exercise, skincare, and weight control.

Lymphedema is a noticeable problem—you can monitor your symptoms as you participate with your medical team in managing your lymphedema.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should you wear your compression sleeve?

    Your healthcare provider will explain when and how you should wear the sleeve. This is guided by your personal situation and the severity of your lymphedema. Some people need to wear them every day, while others only wear them during a flare-up.

    If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask your treatment team—that's what they're there for!

  • Where can you buy compression sleeves for lymphedema?

    You can find compression sleeves at medical supply stores or various websites like LympheDIVAs. Ask whether certain places are covered by your insurance company, or if there is a supplier affiliated with your cancer center.

  • Does insurance cover the cost of compression sleeves for lymphedema?

    Some insurance companies cover all or part of the cost of a compression sleeve, whereas others do not. If you need to pay out-of-pocket, keep in mind that these sleeves can be deducted from your taxes as a medical deduction related to cancer.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rockson SG. Lymphedema. The American Journal of Medicine. 2001;110(4):288-295. doi:10.1016/S0002-9343(00)00727-0

  3. American Cancer Society. What is cancer-related lymphedema?

  4. Ochalek K, Gradalski T, Partsch H. Preventing early postoperative arm swelling and lymphedema manifestation by compression sleeves after axillary lymph node interventions in breast cancer patients: a randomized controlled trial. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2017;54(3):346-354. doi:10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2017.04.014

  5. Ochalek K, Gradalski T, Szygula Z, Partsch H. Physical activity with and without arm sleeves: compliance and quality of life after breast cancer surgery-a randomized controlled trial. Lymphat Res Biol. 2018;16(3):294-299. doi:10.1089/lrb.2017.0045

  6. Mestre S, Gaillard G, Benhamou M, et al. An auto-adjustable night garment to control early rebound effect of edema volume after intensive phase of decongestive lymphedema therapy. Lymphat Res Biol. 2017;15(4):364-370. doi:10.1089/lrb.2017.0026

  7. Hagan TL, Donovan HS. Self-advocacy and cancer: a concept analysis. J Adv Nurs. 2013;69(10):2348-2359. doi:10.1111/jan.12084

Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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