Lymphedema is chronic swelling in the arms or legs caused by damage to the lymphatic system. One of those conditions that can’t be cured, it must be managed with conservative treatments to prevent complications like skin breakdown or infections. Here are the basics about lymphedema from Dr. Chris Pittman of Vein 911 in Tampa, Florida.
What is Lymphedema?
If you break down the word, it becomes lymph and edema. Lymph refers to the clear fluid that circulates through the body outside of the blood vessels through channels that make up the lymphatic system. Edema is simply another word for swelling. It is most likely to occur after cancer treatment or surgery in which the lymph nodes are damaged or removed. The normal drainage channels are blocked or destroyed, and the lymph cannot drain properly, so it builds up in the tissues. Being older, overweight or obese or having rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis can increase the risk of lymphedema.
Lymphedema Symptoms and Complications
Swelling is the cardinal sign of lymphedema. It can include part or all of an arm or leg. You may have a sensation of fullness, tightness or feel as though the affected limb is heavy. Some people notice aching or discomfort, or have restricted range of motion. The skin may become hardened or thick (fibrosis). The affected limb is subject to recurring infections (the lymphatic tissues are part of the immune system). If untreated, lymphedema can sometimes result in a rare form of cancer called lymphangiosarcoma. Lymphedema can occur on its own (primary) or as the result of another condition like cancer or surgery (secondary).
Self Management of Lymphedema
It’s important to keep the affected limb elevated as much as possible to promote drainage. Gentle exercises can also promote lymph drainage. Heating pads can cause burns and should be avoided, as the skin is less sensitive to temperature changes. It’s important to moisturize the skin daily to help keep it supple and prevent cracking that could lead to an infection. Inspect the skin every day for signs of injuries and protect it from injury. Lifestyle changes such as weight loss, stress reduction and regular exercise may be helpful in some cases.
Medical Treatment of Lymphedema
Compression stockings or sleeves can help promote drainage and prevent increased swelling. These must be properly fitted by a trained individual who will measure the affected limb and order the correct stocking or sleeve. Pneumatic compression takes this a step farther by connecting a pump to an inflatable sleeve or stocking. A certified lymphedema therapist can teach you special exercises and massage therapists who are trained in lymphatic massage can help promote lymph drainage. Your doctor must prescribe these treatments in most cases in order for your insurance to pay for them.
With proper medical management and care, lymphedema can be managed successfully. If you have questions or suspect you have lymphedema, please contact us.