Lymphedema Surgery

Lymphedema Surgery David W. Chang, MD, is a leading authority on microsurgical treatments for lymphedema.

The University of Chicago Medicine is one of just a few centers in the country offering lymphovenous bypass and lymph node transfer, innovative surgical techniques designed to reduce swelling and alleviate discomfort for patients with lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a disorder in which lymph fluid accumulates, leading to chronic swelling. It is a common complication following lymph node removal or radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment. The condition can develop from a few days to a few years after treatment and usually affects the arms or legs. While there is no cure, standard care for lymphedema includes physical therapy to decrease pain and improve mobility as well as the use of pressure garments to keep lymph fluid moving.

If the condition worsens and becomes difficult to manage, lymphovenous bypass or vascularized lymph node transfer surgery may help relieve the problem:

  • Lymphovenous bypass - Under a microscope, surgeons use minute instruments to connect blocked lymphatic vessels (as small as 0.3 mm in diameter) to a nearby vein. The bypass allows excess lymph fluid to flow more freely.
  • Lymph node transfer - Healthy vascularized lymph nodes (lymph nodes that have a rich blood supply) are microsurgically transplanted to an area of lymphatic injury to reestablish lymphatic connections.

These surgical procedures are usually more effective for swelling in the arms than in the legs and outcomes are better in the early stages of lymphedema. While results vary, many patients report that their arm or leg feels lighter and more comfortable after the undergoing the treatment.