What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema TherapyPeople who have been treated for cancer and had lymph nodes removed are at risk of developing a debilitating condition called lymphedema, which causes swelling in any part of the body, but most commonly the arms or legs. While it is a chronic condition, there are many ways to treat and manage the disease.

At Good Shepherd, we have specially trained occupational and physical therapists at several outpatient sites who can help patients manage the disease. Lymphedema therapists have received advanced training and may be certified by the Lymphology Association of North America.

Causes of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is caused by a buildup of lymphatic fluid, which consists of proteins, water, fats, cellular waste and even foreign cells, such as bacteria. The lymphatic vessels drain this fluid from your tissues and carry it to the lymph nodes. These nodes filter the fluid to remove waste and toxic substances. Eventually this fluid is returned to the circulatory system. Damage to the lymphatic system causes the lymphatic fluid to build up in the tissues, causing swelling.

There are two types of lymphedema:

  1. Primary lymphedema: A congenital or hereditary condition that results in missing or ineffective lymph vessels. Although it can develop at any time in life, it usually starts in adolescence and most often affects the legs.
  2. Secondary lymphedema: The most common form of the disease. It is caused by injury to the lymph vessels or nodes as a result of surgery, radiation treatments, trauma, blood clots, chronic infections, obesity or chronic venous insufficiency.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent swelling that gradually progresses
  • One limb that looks larger or feels heavier than the other limb
  • Skin that becomes hard or discolored
  • Chronic wounds and infections
  • Clothing, shoes and jewelry no longer fit or leave marks

Treatment of Lymphedema

Lymphedema therapy consists of the following:

  • Manual lymph drainage, a massage technique that redirects the flow of lymphatic fluid so that it can be drained from the affected body part
  • Skin care to prevent infection and wound care as needed
  • Compression bandaging to reduce edema and prevent it from re-accumulating
  • Decongestive exercises to improve lymphatic flow
  • Other treatments that may include use of sequential compression pumps and Kinesio tape
  • Education to teach patients how to manage lymphedema at home. Home programs include self-massage, skin care, exercise and the use of compression garments.

Although lymphedema is a chronic condition, with the right treatment patients can expect to lead normal, healthy lives. If your physician has diagnosed you with this condition, contact Good Shepherd for an appointment for lymphedema therapy.

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