Lymphedema is the accumulation of tissue fluid in interstitial spaces, mainly subcutaneous tissues (beneath the skin). It is the result of an overload of fluid in the lymphatic system. There are four reasons for treating lymphedema: pain (when present), lack of strength and mobility from heaviness, disfigurement, and prevention of future problems, such as worsening of swelling and cellulitis (infection of the skin and underlying tissue).

There are six steps in the treatment of lymphedema.

Conditions that may mimic lymphedema are congestive heart failure, venous disease, cellulitis, drug-induced swelling, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (changes caused by the sympathetic nervous system from an injury), tumor, lipedema (subcutaneous fat deposits), and others. Two or more conditions are commonly present in swollen limbs.

Whether or not to have treatment for lymphedema is an individual decision. The benefits of treatment are relief of pain, improvement of limb function, and significant improvement in appearance. The drawbacks are financial expense (from the cost of elastic stockings, pumps, or massage services), the physical discomfort and time commitment involved in the consistent use of compression devices, and the feeling of having a "disease."

When a decision is made to have treatment, the goals of treatment need to be defined. Short-term goals are relief of pain and reduction of swelling. Patients with primary (hereditary) lymphedema may consider lifelong treatment strategies such as consistent pumping and massage to achieve long-term benefits.