Permanent Side Effects

It is important to understand that a permanent side effect of this procedure is a greater risk of infection in your arm, after the lymph nodes have been removed. You should take special care of that arm and hand, and avoid activities that could injure it. Be protective but not paranoid you want to reduce your chances of getting an infection. Don't lift or carry heavy things with your arm lowered (like a suitcase or large package) and avoid using a shoulder strap for bags or purses on your affected side. If you do get an infection, get to your health care provider as soon as possible and have it treated. You can identify an infection by tenderness, warmth of the tissue, or a cut that drains fluid.

There is a also a nerve that goes through the middle of the area where you have your lymph node dissection. This nerve does not affect how your arm moves, but it does affect sensation under your arm. Many surgeons must cut the nerve (it's difficult to save), and if it is cut, you will permanently lose some sensation in the back part of your underarm.

The most serious side effect of an axillary lymph node dissection is luckily rare. It occurs in about 10% of women. The condition is called lymphedema - the swelling of your arm and hand caused by decreased lymph flow.

Normally, the lymph nodes under your arm filter bacteria out of the lymph fluid, that travels up and down your arm. After surgery, scar tissue may block the flow of the lymph fluid through the underarm area, the drainage slows, and your arm swells. The swelling can be minor, (your hand may feel slightly swollen), or major (more rarely your arm becomes quite large).

Scar tissue can block the flow of lymph fluid up and down your arm, making your arm swell.

Lymphedema can occur in varying degrees. Some women with ongoing lymphedema wear an elastic sleeve to improve lymph circulation. Your health care provider may suggest other approaches (including different exercises,a low-salt diet, or a machine that increases the circulation in your arm).

If lymphedema becomes a long-term problem, your health care provider may suggest additional physical therapy.

This is a machine that compresses your arm to help the lymph fluid flow.

 © 1999 Michigan State University
Communication Technology Laboratory