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Joachim Zuther, Lymphedema Specialist. Read more
Lohmann Rauscher

Tactile Medical

Secondary Lymphedema of the Head and Neck


Lymphedema is a common late effect of cancer treatment in the head and neck region and may develop in a variety of external and internal anatomical locations of the head and neck.

As with lymphedema affecting other areas of the body, most often the upper and lower extremities, secondary lymphedema of the head and neck is caused by a disruption of the normal flow of lymph following surgery and/or radiation for cancer treatment. Impaired lymphatic function is often exaggerated by the formation of scar tissue.

The swelling can be just as severe as those experienced by individuals following treatment of breast and other types of cancer. Lymphedema in patients with head and neck cancer can be very disfiguring, cause functional problems and severely impact the quality of life.

A recently published study on the percentage of the population (prevalence) affected by secondary lymphedema after head and neck cancer treatment from the School of Nursing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN (1) included 81 patients with head and neck cancer who were three months or more post treatment. The study reported that of these 81 patients, 75.3% (61 of 81) had some form of late-effect lymphedema of the head and neck region. Of those, 9.8% (6 of 61) only had external, 39.4% (24 of 61) only had internal, and 50.8% (31 of 61) had lymphedema affecting both internal and external structures.

Another study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (2) reports that out of a study population of 270 patients, 30% of whom were treated with radiation therapy, 9% with surgery alone, and 61% with surgery and radiation therapy, the neck was the most common site of lymphedema (89%), followed by the submental (below the chin) (84%), facial (32%), and intraoral (6%) areas. Some patients had more than one affected area.

Lymphatic Drainage Pattern Head and Neck

The swelling may involve the eyes, face, lips, neck, or the area below the chin (submandibular), and is usually more pronounced at night or other times of the day when the patient is lying down. In many cases the swelling recedes somewhat during the day when the patient is in an upright position due to lymphatic fluid draining from the head and neck region following the forces of gravity.  The swelling is often associated with discomfort or tightness in any of the affected areas, nasal congestion, or decreased vision because of swollen eyelids.
Other functional sequelae may include difficulty swallowing, speaking, or breathing (airway obstruction), drooling or loss of food from the mouth while eating.

Secondary lymphedema of the head and neck, as well as other functional after-effects of cancer treatment in the head and neck region can be significantly improved with complete decongestive therapy (CDT) (2). CDT should be performed by a well-trained lymphedema therapist.
Therapists specializing in the treatment and management of head and neck lymphedema will use a combination of treatment options, to include manual lymph drainage to manually move stagnated lymphatic fluid from the head and neck area into other areas with sufficient lymphatic drainage, skin care, specific exercises and adequate compression therapy, which may involve compression bandages and specific compression garments.

Therapists will also give advice on prevention and managing lymphedema following the treatment phase and instruct patients in necessary self-treatment protocols.

The therapeutic benefit achieved with CDT can often be considerably enhanced by facial exercises, chewing (gum), and meticulous oral hygiene and sleeping in a semi-upright position to counter the negative effects of gravity during times of rest.

Depending on the location, severity and chronicity of the swelling compression garments for the face are available as neck and chin straps, and partial or full-face masks, which generally include openings for the eyes, nose or mouth.

Custom-made facemasks generally provide firmer and more durable compression, but often have a long turnaround time and are costly to produce. Facemasks made of other materials (often used in burn care and post-facial surgery) are available in a variety of standard sizes and offer a more cost effective solution if the edema is not severe, but tend to be less durable.

It is crucial that the patient’s airway is not obstructed with use of the garment and careful consideration must be given to the coverage chosen.








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14 comments to Secondary Lymphedema of the Head and Neck

  • Willa Condy Seymour

    I have primary facial lymphedema and I can vouch for the difference that compression, massage and low intensity laser can make. My head decreased by 2 inches in under 2 years. I wish some days that I could leave the garment off, but it has to be worn to help. I am so looking forward to wearing a night time garment once my noggin stabilizes.
    Thanks for the links great guru.

  • Brad Smith

    I have found that many patients with head and neck lymphedema are able to benefit greatly from self-treatment as the primary therapy approach, provided adequate training is provided up front. Since the head and neck is typically quite accessible for self-treatment and the techniques can be taught relatively easily, many patients are able to achieve excellent results with self-MLD techniques and compression. Naturally, the more outpatient treatment can be provided, the better the results are likely to be. Caregiver assistance is usually a wonderful option, but not always avilable, so we train both caregivers and patients in basic routines that are performed 1x daily or more.

    We published research in 2010 indicating 83% of patients who were judged “compliant” in their home program showed signficiant improvement in size or stage of their edema when they returned for their first follow-up visit between 1-3 months after baseline evaluation. Even 50% of those patients judged partially compliant showed improvement, compared to 9% of those rated as non-compliant. The take home point? Even if you don’t have access to a skilled therapist for regular outpatient treatment sessions, there may be some very effective techniques you can use on your own to manage your head and neck lymphedema.

    Of course, there are circumstances where the edema is quite severe and skilled outpatient therapy is essential. There are also circumstances when treatment should be avoided. An evaluation by a skilled lymphedema therapist, hopefully with experience treating head and neck lymphedema, is always recommended in order to provide the most information and best plan of care for your individual situation.

    I hope this is of benefit to those who follow this blog.
    Brad Smith, CCC-SLP, CLT
    UT MD Anderson Cancer Center
    Houston, TX

  • Deirdre Alexander

    I have chronic parotitis and would like to find out more about simple techniques i can do at home to drain painful lymphnodes (sub-mandibular and parotid mainly).

  • I am truly delighted to read this blog posts which contains tons of useful facts, thanks for providing
    such information.

  • william

    I have tried all these therapy for face lymphoedema to no avail. The swelling keeps happing. I did a surgery to remove the lymphatic nerves on my right side, now u experience swelling even down too my chin. Please what therapy do you advice? I need an answer ASAP. Thank you.

  • Teri Orlando

    Where can you find the face mask?

    Thank you!

  • Dani Kisby

    I have a pt. with newly diagnosed neck lymphedema from cancer. I do not have a lot of experience with head and neck lymphedema since I have only been CLT certified for about a year and mostly deal with the trunk and extremities. Do you have any advice? Thanks!

    • Joachim Zuther

      Dear Dani: You should have the textbook “Lymphedema Management”. Pages 191 ff explore this topic thoroughly

  • Cindy russell

    Hello I have have 4 neck dissection for medullary thyroid cancer I have severe swelling in my face left next to my nose my eye unDer my chin behind I head and inside my mouth gum and lips I have tried therapists here they nOt trained in head and neck and I have a balance problem I feel like I am crazy it hurts and no one knows what to do it has been swollen for 3 days now any help would be appreciated cindy i have called md anderson for help

    • Joachim Zuther

      You need a therapist familiar with the treatment of head and neck lymphedema. If you contacted MD Anderson in Texas, there is an excellent therapist specialized in this condition, his name id Brad Smith