What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling in the extremities (arms/legs) due to damage and/or inefficient function of the lymphatic system. Most people associate Lymphedema with people who have had breast cancer and have had either a lumpectomy or mastectomy and/or lymph node removal causing the arm on the side of surgery to swell. However Lymphedema can extend well beyond just those who have had cancer. Everyone has a Lymphatic system, which is responsible for taking the waste in the body and recirculating it back to the blood stream so it can be eliminated through bowel or urine.

The lymphatic system can be damaged due to surgery, trauma, accumulation of injuries in the same area of the body (e.g. sunburns, contusions, etc.) venous and arterial issues and/or disease process (e.g. Diabetes, Thyroid issues, etc.). When the lymphatic system gets damaged or is not functioning at full capacity, it cannot drain the waste properly out of the area causing fluid to accumulate. This fluid accumulation takes place in the small space between the muscle and the skin. As the fluid accumulates, it caused the skin to expand and swell. If this is left untreated for a long period of time, the skin stretches more and more increasing the risk for infection, wounds and/or leakage of fluid out of the skin. There is usually no pain associated with Lymphedema, however, if infection and/or wounds occur it can be very painful.

How does a physical therapist treat Lymphedema?

A physical therapist will complete a full evaluation to assess if you present with Lymphedema versus other types of swelling to make sure you receive the correct type of treatment. Treatment for Lymphedema includes a specialized massage technique that drains the fluid from the affected extremity pushing it towards the appropriate lymph nodes.

Once the massage is complete some kind of compression will be applied to the extremities including compression wraps, compression stockings or sleeves, or specialized wraps to assist with wound healing. The physical therapist will educate you in appropriate exercise that will assist the further drainage of the swelling and precautions to prevent further damage to the lymphatic system.

Your physical therapist will also work with you  to help you understand the time frame needed to maximally reduce your swelling with a long term goal of receiving appropriate compression garments and becoming independent with a home management program.