Lymphedema is chronic swelling of an area due to an obstruction of lymphatic pathways that carry protein rich fluid out of the body tissues, into our circulatory system.
This obstruction may be the result of a surgical removal of lymph nodes, trauma, insufficiency of the lymphatic system and/or scarring from radiation treatment (acquired lymphedema) or individuals may be born with it (primary lymphedema).
Primary lymphedema is thought to occur in approximately 1 in 10,000 people. It is believed to be caused by a problem with the development of the lymphatic system during gestation. Clinical signs of primary lymphedema may occur shortly after birth, at the onset of puberty or in your mid 30s.
Acquired, or secondary, lymphedema can occur shortly after an injury, surgery or radiation involving lymph nodes, or it may not appear until years later. Secondary lymphedema is most commonly associated with surgery involving breast, prostate, uterus, ovaries, colon or neck. It can result from chronic sprains or repeated surgery to a joint or other body part.
Because there is inadequate fluid drainage, the fluid becomes stagnant and proteins build up in the tissue. That buildup of stagnant proteins may cause chronic low grade inflammation, fibrosis (hardening) of the tissue, an increase in skin temperatutre, miled to sever increase in girth, decrease in tissue healing ability and susceptibility to infections in the affected body part .
What to expect from therapy
A comprehensive treatment program has many facets. Successful treatment requires utilization of those techniques that are most appropriate for the individual patient. Treatment provided by a skilled physical or occupational therapist, with specialized training in swelling management, will provide the best chance for a satisfactory outcome.
At HealthReach, our therapists utilize a variety of treatment interventions. Those can include:
Manual Lymphatic Drainage — a gentle massage that facilitates fluid movement from tissue into the circulatory system
Medical Compression Bandaging — uses low stretch bandages to facilitate lymph flow and prevent refulling of the limb between treatment sessions
Sequential Pumping — a vasopneumatic pump which 'milks' flluid out of a limb can be a useful tool with some individuals
Therapeutic Exercise — our muscles are our very best pump of fluid! Lymphatic fluid can be effectively drained when exercise is combined with compression bandaging.
Patient Education — the goal of therapy is to have each patient learn skills that allow him/her to manage swelling independently. That includes providing information regarding skin care, infection prevention, self massage and exercise.
Your therapist will work with you to determine what type of compression garment will be most effective in preventing the recurrence of swelling in the future.