Posted November 9, 2011
Ashley Annen, OTR/L, CLT
by Becky Lerner
Lymphedema is one of the most poorly-understood, underestimated, and least-researched diagnoses in the medical world. That is why it is so important to increase awareness by educating all healthcare professionals as well as affected communities: patients, their families and friends, and those especially vulnerable to the condition. I first found out about Lymphedema by glancing through a continuing education course catalog and realized that I had no idea what it was. It refers to a medical condition where swelling occurs, generally, in the arms or legs, although it can technically occur anywhere in the body. This occurs when protein-rich lymph fluid accumulates in the interstitial tissue, connective tissue between our cells, as a result of a blockage in the lymphatic system.
How does this happen? The two main causes of Lymphedema are: genetics (Primary) or the result damaged lymph nodes or lymph vessels from surgery, radiation, cancer, infection, or various other causes (Secondary). Some common symptoms of Lymphedema include: swelling; heaviness, fullness, or a tight feeling in the affected area; restricted movement in the joint; abnormal difficulty fitting into clothes, shoes, or jewelry; recurring infection; hardening or thickening of the skin; and feelings of discomfort in the affected area.
Swelling may range from mild, hardly-noticeable changes in the affected area to extreme swelling that can make functionality
difficult. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Lymphedema as of yet, but there are ways to manage it.
The first step is to be properly diagnosed by a doctor. Plain and simple, a clear diagnosis must be presented in order to qualify for treatment.
The next step is to be evaluated by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist to determine an individually-tailored treatment regimen to reduce swelling and control pain.
Possible treatment techniques range from manual therapy to compression bandaging.
- Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a type of gentle massage that encourages the flow of lymph fluid out of the affected limb.
- Compression Bandaging, or wrapping, helps keep the lymph fluid from returning to the affected limb by keeping pressure on the area.
- Exercises that focus on gentle contraction of the muscles in the area are common for Lymphedema in one of the limbs, the most common form.
- Compression Garments are an at-home treatment that, similar to compression bandaging, prevent the limb from swelling in the future.
To reduce the risk of developing Secondary Lymphedema, there are precautions to take. First, be careful! Avoid injury to the
affected area. If a limb is affected, elevate it as much as possible. Avoid tight clothing, and maintain good skin care to prevent infections.
Lymphedema does not need to be a life-long, debilitating condition. The sooner diagnosis and treatment begin, the better overall quality of life can be achieved. Please help us raise awareness of Lymphedema and all who are affected by it. For more information, visit The National Lymphedema Network, The Mayo Clinic, or contact us with questions.