What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs. The lymphatic system is a specialized set of vessels crucial to keep your body healthy by circulating protein-rich lymph fluid throughout the body, collecting bacteria, viruses, and waste products. When the lymph vessels are blocked and unable to carry lymph fluid away from the tissues, lymphedema results. There is no cure for lymphedema but it can be managed with early diagnosis and consistent care of the affected limb.
Causes of Lymphedema
Lymphedema occurs when your lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain lymph fluid, usually from an arm or leg. It can be primary or secondary. This means it can occur on its own (primary) or be caused by another disease or condition (secondary). Secondary lymphedema is far more common than primary lymphedema.
Causes of Primary Lymphedema
Primary lymphedema is a rare, inherited condition cause by problems with the development of lymph vessels.
- Milroy’s disease: begins in infancy and causes abnormal formation of lymph nodes
- Meige’s disease: occurs typically during puberty or pregnancy until age 35.
- Lymphedema tarda: occurs rarely and after the age of 35.
Causes of Secondary Lymphedema
Secondary lymphedema occurs with any condition or procedure that damages your lymph nodes.
- Surgery: removal or injury to lymph nodes and vessels may result in lymphedema. For example, lymph nodes may be removed to check for the spread of breast cancer. Other surgeries associated with lymphedema include vein stripping, lipectomy, burn scar excision, and peripheral vascular surgery
- Radiation treatment for cancer. Radiation can cause scarring and inflammation of the lymph nodes or vessels
- Cancer: if cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels, lymphedema may result.
- Infection: an infection of the lymph nodes can restrict the flow of lymph fluid. The most common worldwide infection is filariasis spread by mosquitos in the tropics.
Why Treat Lymphedema
The lymphatic system processes and removes unwanted substances and bacteria from the body, and produces lymphocytes to fight infections in the body. As the fluid accumulates in the tissue, if can result in:
- Increased risk of infection – the extra fluid is the ideal environment for bacteria to breed.
- Delayed wound healing time – a build-up of lymphatic fluid puts added pressure on fragile tissue as the wound is trying to heal.
- As fluid builds up it begins to harden and the affected body part grows larger. This adds weight making it difficult to move and the added size affects the ability to get clothes on or over it.
Treatment of Lymphedema
While lymphedema is not a curable condition, with proper treatment it can be controlled and one can learn how to effectively manage it during daily life. Physical therapy treatment for lymphedema can include the following:
- Manual lymphatic drainage massage – specialized technique designed to stimulate the uptake of lymph and move the fluid out of the body
- Medical compression bandaging, which can include but is not limited to the use of low stretch bandaging systems to prevent refill of treated areas and continual stimulation of lymphatic structures.
- An exercise program to help utilize the muscle pumping action of the body to move fluid along lymphatic pathways.