Welcome to Lymphedema Treatment
We aim to provide helpful resources and information for lymphedema treatment, management and awareness.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema arises when a transparent liquid called lymphatic-fluid accumulates in the soft tissues of the body, generally in the arms or legs. The lymphatic system includes lymph-vessels and lymph-nodes that stream through the body. Lymph vessels transmit this fluid consisting of wastes, fats, water, and protein from the cells of the body. Lymph-vessels transfer this fluid to the lymph nodes, and in turn, filter the waste materials and return the fluid to the blood. If the vessels or nodes are injured or missing, the lymph-fluid cannot travel liberally throughout the system. The fluids can accumulate and produce swelling. This swelling is known as lymphedema.
Different Types of Lymphedema
There are two types of lymphedema:
– Acquired lymphedema is occasionally called secondary-lymphedema and results from damage to the lymphatic system causing lymphedema. This type of lymphedema is much more widespread than primary lymphedema.
– Inherited lymphedema or primary lymphedema happens when a person is born with missing lymph-vessels and nodes. Swelling normally happens during a person’s adolescence and involves the calf or foot. Another rare type of primary lymphedema takes place during infancy and is known as Milroy’s disease.
Chronic lymphedema can last for a person’s entire lifetime and can be difficult to treat. Swollen appendages can become susceptible to infection as well. For example, a minor injury to the skin such as an insect bite, athlete’s-foot between the toes, a scratch, or cut, can lead to a severe infection that physicians call lymphangitis. Lymphangitis damages the connective-tissue beneath the skin. Recurrent infections can result in scarring that leaves the tissue vulnerable to more infections and swelling. Tissues can become hard, known as fibrosis, which is a sign of advanced chronic lymphedema.
Causes of lymphedema
The most well known causes of secondary-lymphedema are radiation treatment for specific types of cancer such as testicular and breast cancers in women, or surgery. Additional causes of lymphedema include surgical procedures such as liposuction, surgery on blood vessels in limbs, other surgical procedures, as well as burns.
Globally, lymphedema is frequently caused by a parasite infection or filariasis. However, in the United States, lymphedema frequently occurs in women after breast cancer surgery, especially after radiation treatments. It is estimated that globally, there are up to 250 million individuals suffering with lymphedema.
Lymphedema can be treated by raising the limb, systematic use of a lymphatic sleeve, and treatment with a pneumatic-sleeve to massages the limb. Physical therapy, weight loss, and exercise can also help. If an infection has occurred, antibiotics are administered or sometimes diuretics are used.
The frequency of lymphedema as a result of breast cancer treatment, radiation, or surgery varies from 10% to 40%. The incidence of invasive-cancer survivors in the United States at the beginning of the millennium has been estimated by the NCI, National Cancer Institute, to be 9.6 million, with 61% or 5.86 million over the age of 65. In addition, 20% occurrences of lymphedema affect the breast, neck, head, lower and upper limbs. However, this estimate does not include the possibility of an identical number of patients afflicted with lymphedema-secondary to recurring venous insufficiency.
Lymphedema is a disease that anyone can get, but it is much more likely to occur in certain people. The main effect of lymphedema is swelling, usually of an arm or leg. Swelling can be severe and affect the patient’s ability to walk or move, but it can also be mild or moderate. A small percentage of patients with lymphedema were born with it, but the vast majority of patients acquire it after an event like surgery, cancer, chemotherapy, or injury. Primary lymphedema is when you are born with it, and secondary lymphedema is when it is acquired later in life. The basic explanation is swelling, but there is much more to it. The fluid that builds up is lymph, which is the fluid that runs through the lymphatic system to help filter toxins out of the body. Because the lymph is unable to flow freely, it builds up in one spot and causes swelling. This means that the lymphatic system cannot be fully effective; patients are much more at risk for infections because of this. Other symptoms include hardening of the skin, soreness, decreased range of motion, and itchiness, among others. Many people affected by lymphedema are cancer patients. A tumor can obscure the lymph nodes or block lymphatic pathways, chemotherapy can kill lymphatic cells, and surgery may involve the removal of lymph nodes to prevent the spreading of cancer cells. It is common for secondary lymphedema to improve over time with treatment, and it is possible for it to go away completely.
Treatment methods include:
- Exercises: Just about all lymphedema patients can benefit from doing simple exercises at home on a daily basis. These exercises differ based on what area of the body is swollen and how severe the swelling is. Doing this can help reduce loss of muscle mass, improve range of motion, get the fluid moving, reduce swelling, and more.
- RICE: Rest, ice, compression, and elevation are all helpful here. Rest and ice are good for limiting discomfort and pain. Compression can help reduce swelling and enable the patient to move more easily. Elevation is extremely important for lymphedema because the swelling is basically a pool of fluid. Elevating the limb can help the fluid move back into the body, as opposed to staying puddled up in one place. This can reduce the risk of infection as well, as standing lymph fluid is a breeding ground for bacteria.
- Medications: Some patients require medications to help manage their symptoms.
- Massage: Massage is great for getting the lymph fluid moving and relieving pain. There is a special lymphatic drainage massage that can be done regularly on patients.
- Surgery: Some patients require surgery if their symptoms don’t subside over time or with other forms of treatment. Liposuction and Debulking are two common ones used for patients with lymphedema.