Lymphedema therapy


Lymphedema is a condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system, which normally returns interstitial fluid to the bloodstream. This condition results in swelling of the arm and/or legs. The swelling occurs when the lymphatic fluid can’t be completely drained from the limb because of the damage caused by surgery, infection or radiation treatment for cancer. Diagnosis often requires lab test or imaging. It can be characterized by mild to severe swelling in the limbs. Treatment aims at reducing the swelling and easing the pain by using various techniques like wrapping the limb, massage, pneumatic compression, complete decongestive therapy or exercising regularly.

Lymphedema Symptoms

Symptoms may range from mild, hardly noticeable swelling to severe forms that affect movements. The swelling can be of a part of or the entire arm, including fingers and/or swelling of a part of or the entire leg, including toes. Some patients report a feeling of heaviness or tightness in arms and legs. As well as, reduced ability to move the hands and legs and aching or discomfort in the affected limbs. Also, increased frequency of infections and hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis) due to lack of circulation.

Typical Lymphedema Treatments

There is no cure for lymphedema. Treatments aim at reducing swelling and controlling the pain. Self care approaches include wearing compression garments as suggested by the doctor and exercising regularly. Patients are asked to work at reducing stress and to take adequate rests. Education regarding keeping skin and nails clean and how to take care of  cuts or cracks in the skin in necessary to reduce the frequency of infection. If self care does not work then medical procedures include pneumatic compression.

How Physical Therapy Treats Lymphedema 

Physical therapy for lymphedema is a hands-on approach. Initially the first step is manual lymphatic drainage. Opening the lymph channels allows the interstitial fluid, or lymph to flow correctly without blockage. This can take multiple treatments or start working on the first visit. Daily exercise will be prescribe to ensure the body’s venous return is pitching in to do it’s part in removing excess fluid from limbs. Elevation of swollen limps, during and at home is important to help keep additional swelling from occurring. Massage therapy is administered by a physical therapist and is focus on the lymph channels.

Causes of Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema may be the result of abnormally formed lymph nodes during puberty or pregnancy. Some individuals are affected when they get older and normal circulation is compromised in some way, mostly people older than 35 years. Secondary, lymphedema is caused by the blockage of the lymphatic system and can be a result of, cancer or tumor, either growing in or near the lymph nodes. Infection of the lymph nodes and cancer treatment, including radiation treatment may result in swelling of the arms or legs. If there is a removal of lymph nodes as in the case of cancer biopsies, or damage to lymph nodes, for example, surgery of blood vessels lymphedema can occur. Other causes include obesity or being over weight and rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.