Lymphedema in the armpit can happen after breast cancer surgery. The development of lymphedema is related to axillary lymph node surgery and radiation therapy.  

Why lymphedema occurs?

During breast cancer surgery, some of the lymph nodes in the underarm may be removed. Surgeons usually do this in order to check if these lymph nodes have cancer cells. 

When these lymph nodes are removed, some of the lymph vessels can become blocked, preventing the protein-rich fluid from leaving the area. This leads the lymphatic fluid to collect in the arm, causing it to swell. Aside from swelling, lymphedema in the armpit can also cause a "full" or heavy sensation in the arms, skin tightness, and decreased flexibility in the hand or wrist. 

Who are at risk?

Not all those who underwent breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy develop lymphedema in the armpit. And it's still unclear why some people develop it while others don't. However, there are factors that can increase one's risk of developing lymphedema. These include: 

  • Having a large number of lymph nodes removed 

  • Having axillary lymph nodes removed and radiation therapy on the axillary lymph node area 

  • Having a large number of axillary lymph nodes that contain cancer 

  • Being obese or overweight 

  • Infections in the area after breast cancer surgery 

Screening and Treating Lymphedema

Aside from reviewing one's medical history, healthcare providers usually measure the upper and the lower arm widths to find out if one has lymphedema or not. Measurements are taken before and after surgery to compare results. 

There is no treatment for lymphedema but there are ways to improve the symptoms. These include good skin and nail care, use of compression garments, manual lymphatic drainage, and physical therapy. The use of a compression device such as a pump, losing weight (if obese or overweight), and surgery are also shown to help in relieving the symptoms of lymphedema in the armpit. 

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