Lymphedema is a chronic condition in which an abnormal accumulation of protein-rich swelling occurs, usually in an arm or leg. It occurs as a result of damage or malfunction within the lymphatic system, commonly after surgery, radiation therapy, or trauma. The condition causes uncomfortable swelling, limited function and a higher risk of infections. There is no cure for lymphedema, however, it can be managed through swelling reduction.
Learn the Facts About Lymphedema
- Physical therapy is key in the prevention, detection, and management of lymphedema.
- Lymphedema is thought to affect nearly 3 million Americans.
- As many as 30% of cancer survivors develop lymphedema. They may not develop it right away so it may go undetected and untreated for a while.
- Primary lymphedema can be present at birth, develop at puberty, or in adulthood. Secondary lymphedema results from damage to the lymphatic system, such as with surgery to remove lymph nodes, radiation therapy, or in combination with venous insufficiency or other disorders.
Reduce the Risk of Lymphedema
- Keep limb clean and dry
- Apply moisturizer daily to prevent chaffing and chapping
- Take special attention to nail care, and do not cut cuticles
- Wear sunscreen and insect repellent
- Avoid limb constriction such as a blood pressure cuff on the affected side
- Wear loose-fitting clothing and jewelry
- Avoid punctures to the affected limb, such as blood draws and injections
- Avoid skin injury, wear gloves when gardening, working with tools & chemicals
- If skin punctures/scratches occur wash with soap and water, apply antibiotic ointment and watch for signs of infection
- Watch for signs of infection like redness, warmth, rash, itchy, fever or flu-like symptoms and contact your doctor immediately.
- Wear daytime compression garments
- Garments should be well-fitting
- Wear the garment during air travel and strenuous activity
- Wear bandages at night to maintain compression
- Avoid extremely hot or cold temps, associated with irritation and swelling
- Avoid prolonged exposure to hot tubs or saunas (greater than 15 minutes)
- Avoid placing the limb in temps over 102º F
Activity & Lifestyle
- Take frequent breaks with activity, to allow for recovery
- Gradually increase your activity level
- Maintain optimal body weight and size
- Monitor your limb for changes in size, texture, soreness, heaviness, and firmness
What is Complete Decongestive Therapy?
Complete Decongestive Therapy is a home program for lifelong management, improved flexibility of affected limb, swelling reduction, reduced cellulitic infections, improved skin conditions, and enhanced functional status.
Benefits of Manual Lymph Drainage (massage techniques):
Improved lymph circulation, decreased swelling, relaxation, and special techniques that break down fibrotic/scar tissue.
Phase I primary goal: drain
This phase typically lasts 2-6 weeks under the care of your Certified Lymphedema Therapist and involves compression through bandaging, skincare and risk reduction, exercise to reduce swelling and regain mobility, and manual lymph drainage which is a specialized massage to stimulate the lymphatic system for swelling reduction.
Phase II primary goal: maintain
This phase is a home maintenance program for the lifetime management of lymphedema. Should you experience an episode of increased swelling during phase II, contact your doctor and Lymphedema Therapist for a shortened version of phase I to reduce the swelling. The maintenance phase consists of compression through night bandaging and daytime compression, skincare and risk reduction, self-massage if needed, and exercise to maintain mobility and reduce swelling.