Your lymphatic system plays many important roles in your body, including:
- Maintain your fluid levels
- Production of white blood cells that help protect you from viruses, bacteria and other invaders
When infection, disease, or injury causes your lymphatic system to stop working properly, you may develop lymphedema. With this condition, lymph fluid builds up in your tissues and causes swelling.
If you have lymphedema in your arms, one way to reduce swelling and discomfort is to wear a compression sleeve.
Below you’ll find answers to eight common questions about lymphedema compression sleeves, including how they work and how long you can wear them at one time.
Compression sleeves are tight, stretchy bands of fabric that you can wear over your extremities to increase blood flow. They come in a variety of materials, colors and patterns.
Here’s how to use one:
- Fold the sleeve in the middle.
- Move it over the affected arm up to the elbow.
- Pull the folded part over the top of your arm and work it up until it rests just under your armpit.
- Smooth the sheathing until there are no creases or creases left.
The main goal of lymphedema treatment is to control swelling caused by the buildup of excess lymph fluid. Because these sleeves apply pressure, they help encourage lymph fluid to drain away from the tissues, Yunus says, which may reduce pain and swelling.
Yunus explains that these sleeves not only treat lymphedema symptoms. They may also help prevent this condition by preventing lymph pooling.
Bringing on stress may have long-term benefits. Here’s what the research says:
- a 2017 study She studied the benefits of compression sleeves after an axillary lymph node dissection – a breast cancer surgery that can damage the lymphatic system. Participants who wore the sleeves for 8 to 10 hours per day experienced less swelling after surgery and had less arm edema at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months after surgery.
Study 2019of breast cancer survivors found that wearing a compression sleeve for two years helped prevent postoperative lymphedema. It also significantly improved some measures of quality of life, such as fatigue, pain, physical performance, and arm and breast symptoms.
- a 2020 review It included participants who received sentinel node biopsy, axillary lymph node dissection, or radiotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer. According to the findings, compression sleeves may reduce the risk of developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment or prevent it from getting worse.
Deciding whether to wear a compression sleeve may depend on the stage of your lymphedema:
- level 1: Your arm feels heavy and swollen, and pressure on it leaves a dent.
- The second phase: In addition to swelling in your arm, your skin is thick and hard. The pressure does not leave a trace.
- Stage 3: Your affected arm is much larger than your other arm. Your skin becomes hard and may have scars and a wart-like growth.
Compression sleeves can help treat the symptoms of stage 1 lymphedema, but if your condition progresses to stage 2 or 3, you may need alternative treatment first. Other treatments may include surgery to remove the affected area or reconnect the lymphatic system, as well as a complete decongestant treatment.
Your primary care doctor can provide more guidance on whether you might benefit from wearing a compression sleeve, based on your symptoms and their severity.
A doctor or physical therapist can provide specific directions for wearing a compression sleeve. Some people may need to wear one every day, but others may only need to wear one when lymphedema flares up.
Usually, you’ll wear a sleeve during the day and take it off at night. Ideally, you’ll put the sleeve on the right after you wake up, when your limb is less swollen. Or you can wear it after you shower, if it’s part of your morning routine.
It is important to wear a compression sleeve while:
- Doing household chores that require physical effort, such as gardening, vacuuming, or mowing the lawn
- Traveling by plane, due to changes in air pressure
Research has not yet come to any conclusions about whether you can safely wear a daytime compression sleeve while sleeping. Younes explains that the sleeves can move while you sleep, which can limit blood flow and eventually increase swelling.
However, if lymphedema bothers you during the night, call your doctor. In some cases, they may recommend wearing a special non-elastic night sleeve for comfort. Night sleeves are usually looser, bulkier, and provide gentle compression.
When choosing sleeves, you have a few styles to consider:
- upper arm: These sleeves provide the most coverage. Run from the top of your arm to the middle of your hand, partially gloved without fingers.
- From arm to wrist: These sleeves start at the top of your arm and stop at your wrist.
- double arm: This option has sleeves for both arms, and is often connected by a strip of fabric across the back.
- glove: You can wear it with a compression sleeve if you have edema in your hands.
The right compression sleeve for you depends on where the swelling affects your arm the most. When in doubt, always work with your doctor or lymphedema therapist. They can help you find the right style and compression level, as well as recommend specific reputable brands and retailers that sell durable compression wraps.
No matter which style you choose, the most important consideration when purchasing a compression sleeve is proper fit. Your sleeve should feel snug but not comfortable. The pressure should feel evenly throughout the sleeve.
If the compression sleeve is too tight, you may notice:
Conversely, your sleeve may be too loose if you notice the following:
- About slides
Before purchasing a compression sleeve, it is important that it is installed correctly by your doctor or physical therapist. The fitting helps make sure that your sleeve will provide the right amount of pressure to help drain the lymph buildup from your arm. A sleeve that is too tight can restrict lymph flow and make symptoms worse.
You can find compression sleeves at medical supply stores and large online retailers such as Amazon and Walmart. However, these sleeves come in pre-made sizes – small, medium, large and extra large. You may find it difficult to get the right fit with these ready-to-wear.
Being prepared before buying online is always a good move. This way, you can check the brand’s sizing chart or ask a healthcare professional to rate the fit to make sure it will work for you.
Your doctor may also prescribe a compression sleeve to treat lymphedema – which means your insurance will likely cover it.
You can get a custom wrap and order it at any local DME store.
Compression sleeves can relieve symptoms of lymphedema by helping to eliminate excess lymph. They may also help ward off lymphedema by preventing lymph from accumulating in the first place.
Usually, you’ll wear the sleeve from morning until night and take it off to sleep. But if your symptoms are causing a disturbance that disrupts your sleep, you can ask your doctor for a special nighttime sleeve.
If you think a sleeve can help your lymphedema symptoms, your care team can provide more personalized instructions on where to fit and order a custom wrap.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health, wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.
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