Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a swelling of the body that occurs when the normal functioning of the lymphatic system is disrupted or altered. The lymphatic system of lymph vessels and lymph nodes is part of our circulatory system. It acts to drain and filter excess water, protein, and waste products from our tissues and return the filtered fluid back to the blood system; it also carries immune cells through our body. Simply put, the lymphatic system is part of our internal cleansing mechanism and plays an important role in protecting the body against illness and infection. Lymphedema is a local or generalized swelling caused by an overloaded or damaged lymphatic system. A protein-rich swelling/edema builds up in the tissue spaces causing decreased oxygen to tissues, decreased cell health, and with time tissue hardening, decreased function, pain and increased risk of infection and skin breakdown.

There are Different Types of Lymphedema

Primary/Congenital Lymphedema is related to a birth defect in the lymphatic system. Swelling can present at birth or occur later, in adolescence or as an adult.

Secondary/ “Acquired” Lymphedema can be the result of surgery (especially cancer surgery with lymph node removal), radiation therapy, traumatic injury, history of chronic venous insufficiency, repeated infections, or parasites (most common in tropical countries). Swelling can occur immediately following the change in the system or can occur years later.

Symptoms can include no pain with fluctuating swelling to obvious, persistent swelling with tightness, heaviness and pain. Untreated lymphedema is chronic and progressive.

What Can Be Done?

Lymphedema cannot be cured but it can be successfully reduced and managed with proper diagnosis and treatment. Early intervention is always best but it’s never too late.

Combined Decongestive Therapy offers the best treatment.

Specially trained therapists will design a program based on the patient’s individual needs and may include:

  • Manual Lymph Drainage Massage (MLD) is a gentle, rhythmic, pumping massage that acts to stimulate the superficial lymphatic pathways as well as open up alternative vessel pathways. It acts to decrease edema and hardened tissue areas, soften scar areas, increase tissue health and wound healing. It also acts to decrease pain and tissue tension.
  • Skin Care (and Wound Care if needed)
  • Compression Bandaging/Compression Garments are used after MLD to maintain edema reduction and further soften hardened tissue areas.
  • Active Exercise is done to activate the muscle pump against the external resistance of compression bandages or compression garment(s) to increase lymph flow.
  • Patient/Family/Caregiver Education can include daily living precautions and risk factors, skin care advice, the best use of compression options, instruction in self-massage and recommended home exercises.

Patient commitment and compliance are crucial for optimal gains.Treatment can be dramatic.

The Goal: Successful, independent patient lymphedema management

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