Help is Available for Lymphedema Patients
Lymphedema is the collection of fluid and abnormal swelling resulting from a disruption in the normal flow of lymph fluid in the body's circulatory system.
Aside from arteries and veins, lymph vessels are responsible for 10% of the blood return in the body. Even a small disturbance can cause significant blockage and lead to swelling.
In the United States, Lymphedema most often occurs following cancer care, which may involve surgical removal of lymph nodes or radiation, which decreases the effectiveness of the treated or remaining nodes.
This usually results in arm swelling after treatment of breast cancer but can also be seen following treatment of prostate, thyroid or ovarian/uterine cancer. Swelling of this kind can also be present after a traumatic injury to a limb or joint.
Because it presents in so many ways, Lymphedema can be seen in men and women of all ages. Swelling in the arms and legs is most common but can also be present in the trunk, neck, face and genitals.
Causes of Lymphedema
Primary Lymphedema presents at any age from unknown causes. Secondary Lymphedema, or acquired Lymphedema, can develop following surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. Specific surgeries, such as surgery for breast, gynecological, head and neck, prostate or testicular, bladder or colon cancer, which require removal of lymph nodes, put patients at risk of developing secondary Lymphedema. If lymph nodes are removed or altered with radiation, there is an increased risk of developing Lymphedema.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
Lymphedema can develop in any part of the body or limb(s). Signs or symptoms of Lymphedema include a sensation of heaviness in the limb(s), decreased flexibility in the hand/wrist/ankle, difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area, or ring/wristband/bracelet tightness. If you notice persistent swelling, it is very important that you seek medical advice. Early diagnosis and treatment improves the prognosis.
Symptoms are usually present near the treatment area. For example, following treatment to the right breast, swelling would most likely occur in the right arm.
Initially, swelling may be reduced by elevating the arm or leg. But without treatment, the swelling will remain and eventually skin changes will occur because of the constant pressure.
With a referral from a doctor, effective treatment will begin with a physical therapy evaluation. Based on clinical findings, a physical assessment and physician's recommendations, an individualized treatment plan will be created.
Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) will be utilized and adapted according to the patient's individual needs. The therapy applied may consist of a combination of:
- Manual therapy for fluid reduction
- Application of compression bandages
- Remedial exercise
- Meticulous skin care
- Use of a compression garment
Each patient will be educated regarding the signs and symptoms of possible infection. As treatment progresses, patients will be taught self-massage, bandaging techniques, home exercises and proper skin care.
Patient progress and necessary modifications will be monitored through communication between the physical therapist, primary care physician and any consulting specialists.
Lymphedema is not an indicator of failed cancer therapy. Lymphedema can impair the body's ability to fight infection and should be addressed as quickly as possible to avoid further complications and permanent damage.
The good news is that Lymphedema can be managed using effective physical therapy.
Lymphedema treatment is covered by most insurances. Individuals seeking more information regarding treatment can contact their physician or the Uniontown Hospital Physical Rehabilitation Department at (724) 437-5303.Return to LEARN MORE