What is Lymphedema? Lymphedema is an accumulation of protein rich “lymph” fluid in the tissues under the skin, causing swelling in an arm, leg, neck or any area of the body.
What causes lymphedema?
Lymphedema usually occurs as a result of surgical dissection of lymph nodes for breast, melanoma, prostate or head/neck cancers. Other causes can include radiation therapy, trauma, infections, morbid obesity and venous insufficiency.
How is lymphedema treated?
Our Certified Lymphedema Therapists (CLTs) teach patients how to manage their condition with the following:
- Gentle Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) techniques,
- Skin care, Compression bandaging,
- Therapeutic exercises,
- Proper fitting of compression garments.
Breast Cancer and Lymphedema
Breast cancer related lymphedema, which can cause significant swelling of the involved arm, forearm, and hand, breast, and even the trunk, is mostly caused by damage and trauma to the body’s lymphatic system during treatment for cancer and can include limited movement, joint pain, and difficulty performing overhead activities.
Therapists that have had the additional certification for Complete Decongestive Physiotherapy (CDP) are experts in restoring motion and mobility, and not only treat the effects of lymphedema, but also reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid in an area of extremity due to a disruption of the lymphatic system. On occasion, lymphedema has been referred to as a “plumbing problem.” Lymphedema most always takes place at the most superficial level of the lymph vessels, under the skin. Lymphedema can take place at any part of the body. When this lymph fluid accumulates due to the blockage or interruption, it can reduce the amount of the nutrients that reach the cells and interfere with wound healing resulting in risk of infection.
The degree of lymphedema does vary from mild to extreme and can lead to life-threatening complication. Usually, lymphedema begins with a feeling of heaviness or fullness of an affected arm or leg. As the lymphedema progresses’, clothing is difficult to fit, there is fatigue, and embarrassment and a person’s quality of life is impacted. Once a diagnosis of lymphedema is established, lymphedema treatment can begin lowering the risk of large distortions of the limb, skin changes, and infection. Over time the affected limb can become extremely large and heavy due to swelling. This can in turn cause disfigurement and disability.
Causes of lymphedema may include: infection, cancer, scar tissue from radiation or surgical removal of lymph nodes, inherited conditions in which lymph nodes or vessels are absent.
Lymphedema may be primary or secondary.
Primary lymphedema may be present at birth, develop at puberty or in adulthood from unknown causes.
Secondary lymphedema, sometimes called acquired lymphedema: can be caused by mastectomy surgery and/or radiation; other surgeries, especially cancer surgeries with lymph node removal; tumors pressing or blocking the lymphatic vessels; trauma due to accidents, and occasionally as a result of liposuction surgery, filariasis, a parasitic infection, is a frequent cause of secondary lymphedema in tropical countries.
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Lymphangiosarcoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system
- Recurrent infection
Manual lymph drainage, known as MLD, as a specialized form of directional manual pressure is applied to the limb, torso, head or neck to drain the excess lymphatic fluid. Between sessions, the patient wears some form of compression garment or bondage to keep the fluid from accumulating.
The certified therapist performs the treatment along with education on exercise, skin care, diet, and psychosocial aspects – stress and changes in temperature can cause increased swelling.
Lymphedema treatment is for a lifetime. Consistent treatment will maintain limb form and function. Lymphedema can effectively be treated improving the patient’s quality of life.