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Understanding Lymphedema

Swelling has long been a concern for physicians and their patients, whether the swelling is due to cancer surgery, orthopedic surgery, trauma, sports injuries, diabetes, venous stasis ulcers, radiation, chronic venous insufficiency or plastic/reconstructive surgery.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema (chronic swelling) occurs when an interruption of lymphatic flow results in the accumulation of lymphatic fluid causing abnormal swelling in the arms, legs, feet, breast, abdomen, neck or head. When lymphatic vessels are impaired, missing, or when lymph nodes are removed, the remaining lymph pathways become congested or blocked. These fluids (waste products) can build up in the connective tissues and becomes thicker and the affected areas feel heavy. This thickening of lymphatic fluid is called fibrosis (hardening of the skin and underlying tissue).

Types of Lymphedema:

Primary Lymphedema

Swelling in one or more limbs can be present at birth, develop at the onset of puberty (Lymphedema Praecox) or in adulthood usually after the age of 35 (Lymphedema Tarda), all from unknown causes, or associated with vascular anomolies such as hemangioma, lymphangioma, Port Wine Stain, Turner’s syndrome, Noonan’s syndrome, Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome and many others.

Secondary Lymphedema

Secondary Lymphedema, or acquired Lymphedema, can develop as a result of any radiation, surgery, infection or trauma. Surgery for breast, gynecological, head and neck, prostate, testicular, bladder, colon, lung cancer or melanoma, all of which currently require removal of lymph nodes, put patients at risk of developing secondary Lymphedema. If lymph nodes are removed, there is always a risk of developing Lymphedema. Even with a sentinel lymph node biopsy, patients are still at risk. Secondary Lymphedema can develop immediately after surgery, weeks, months, or even years later. It can also develop if chemotherapy is injected to the already affected area (the side on which the surgery was performed) or after repeated aspirations of a seroma (a pocket of fluid which may occur after surgery) in the axilla, around the breast incision, or groin area. This often causes infection and may subsequently cause Lymphedema.

What is the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system of veins and arteries. The lymphatic system removes excess water and impurities from the blood and tissues. The two most common reasons for swelling are Lymphedema and Venous Insufficiency.

lymphatic system diagram
senior getting lymphedema treatment

Who Is At Risk?

  • Patients who have had surgical procedures such as cancer surgery, cardiac surgery, gastric by-pass, orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery or cosmetic procedures.
  • Patients undergoing radiation therapy in the treatment of breast, gynecological, head and neck, prostate, testicular, bladder and melanomas are at risk of developing Lymphedema. These procedures can damage lymph nodes or vessels, inhibiting the flow of lymph fluid in the body.
  • Research suggests that the chance of developing Lymphedema after ANY cancer treatment increases if a number of lymph nodes are removed, if radiation is used as part of treatment, or if wound complications develop after surgery.
  • Other conditions that may put people at risk are venous insufficiency, diabetes, sports injuries, un-healing wounds and trauma.
  • Patients who have a damaged or blocked lymphatic system over an extended period of time are suffering needlessly from Lymphedema. Without proper treatment, Lymphedema can leave a limb(s) almost useless due to swelling and discomfort.

All patients that have had lymph nodes removed or radiated are encouraged to come in for an assessment to learn prevention and precaution techniques to prevent Lymphedema, included in the visit will be the following:

  • 18 steps to prevention/precautions
  • Fitting for compression arm sleeve/glove
  • Safe home exercise program

How Can LymphaTx Help?

At LymphaTx, your Lymphatic Therapist uses a unique combination of gentle manual lymphatic drainage techniques. The hands-on Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) Therapy is made up of slow, gentle, rhythmic movements, mimicking the pumping of lymphatic fluid through the body. MLD is the first component included in Combined Decongestive Physiotherapy (CDP). The goal of CDP is to decongest trapped proteins and congestion within the lymph system, allowing waste products and toxins to slowly and safely flow out through healthy lymph vessels. Additionally, compression bandaging (wrapping the affected area with short stretch bandages to increase drainage and prevent fluid from refilling), skin care, therapeutic exercises and compression stockings/ sleeves work together to improve the flow of lymphatic fluid and maintain the reduction of swelling.

The benefits are increased by the number of sessions you receive, and is both preventive and restorative as it enhances the body’s natural immune system. Most patients will see amazing results within the first week of therapy.

Combined Decongestive Physiotherapy is safe (doesn’t require any invasive procedures) and more beneficial than any other treatment, including surgery and compression pumps.