Lymphedema & Lymph Node Transfer | Planning and Recovery | MedStar Health

Throughout your body, there are hundreds of small glands known as lymph nodes. These glands are part of your immune system and filter various fluids and substances within your body.

But if some lymph nodes are removed or damaged as part of a cancer treatment, you may develop a condition known as lymphedema. The condition may cause swelling in one or both of your arms or legs due to a blockage in the lymphatic system (caused by the missing or non-functioning lymph nodes).

While having the affected area massaged and excess fluid drained can help some patients, others may need surgical treatment for long-term relief.

One surgical option for mild to moderate lymphedema is a lymph node transfer. By taking healthy lymph nodes from another place in your body and transferring them where they’re needed, you can find relief from lymphedema symptoms.

At MedStar Health, we offer lymph node transfer using microsurgical techniques to help treat your lymphedema.

Dr David Song looks at a patient's arm during an office visit.

Planning and recovery

What to expect

If you’re experiencing symptoms but do not have a diagnosis, schedule a consultation with one of our lymphedema specialists. The most common way to diagnose lymphedema is with a bioimpedance analysis, which measures electrical flow through body tissue.

Once it is confirmed that the lymphatic channel is blocked, a team of doctors will determine the best treatment. In the meantime, they will try to reduce the swelling, often by wrapping the affected limb with a sleeve to offer you some relief. If surgery is recommended, you’ll discuss any risks and potential complications and walk through the steps involved. You’ll be given specific instructions to follow prior to your surgery.

On the day of surgery, your surgeon will use microsurgical techniques to move a lymph node and blood vessels from a donor site and transplant it to the recipient site. While the length of the procedure varies, it can take from four to eight hours.

Recovery from lymph node transfer

You may be hospitalized for one to three days after your procedure. Recuperation after returning home ranges from four to six weeks. Your mobility and lymphedema symptoms may take longer to recover, with some patients improving within weeks and others within months. Our team will work closely with you to help you reach the best results possible.

Additional information

Hear Susan's story

Some women who have surgery as a treatment for breast cancer develop a painful condition called lymphedema. Plastic Surgeon David H. Song is now performing lymph node transfer as a way to ease the symptoms and reduce the incidence of lymphedema. Meet Susan Wolfe-Tank, whose life was changed for the better after Dr. Song performed her lymph node transfer.

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Frequently asked questions

  • How should I prepare for surgery?

    Before surgery, you may be asked to get blood tests and take or adjust medications. If you smoke, quitting will help you heal faster and avoid possible complications. You’ll also need to arrange for transportation to and from the hospital and for someone to stay with you the night you return home.

    For more information visit Patient Resources or Preparing for Surgery.

  • What are the risks of a lymph node transfer?

    Lymph node transfer, as with all surgeries, carries certain risks:

    • Anesthesia risks

    • Bleeding (hematoma)

    • Fluid collecting at surgical sites

    • Infection

    • Lymphedema where the lymph node(s) were harvested

    • Poor healing of incisions

  • Will I need physical therapy?

    Your doctor may recommend a physical therapy program to help you get the best results from your surgery. Physical therapy can help reduce your swelling from lymphedema and regain your range of motion, strength, and flexibility after surgery.

Patient Story

Lymph node transfer gets patient back to her adventures.

Our locations

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MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

3800 Reservoir Road NW,
BLES Building
1st. Floor
Washington, D.C., 20007


MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center

106 Irving St. NW
POB North
Ste. 3400
Washington, D.C., 20010

MedStar Health: Plastic Surgery at McLean

6862 Elm Street
Suite 800
McLean, VA 22101