Lymphedema: Causes, Types and Treatment - What You Need to Know

Posted by Patricia Montagano on

Woman massaging her legs. Image: Selfcare photo created by Freepik

Lymphedema: Causes, Types and Treatment - What You Need to Know

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a chronic and progressive condition that results in the swelling of tissues due to an obstruction of the lymphatic system; it can affect any part of the body, but it most often affects the arm, leg, or groin area. This condition is more common in people who have had cancer — particularly breast cancer — or people who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes from their armpit — axillary dissection — or groin — inguinal hernia repair.

 

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is responsible for maintaining the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body; it is a network of organs, glands, and vessels and is part of the immune system that helps fight infections.

The lymphatic system does not have a pump like the circulatory system; it relies on muscle contractions to push lymph through its vessels instead.

The lymphatic system has two main parts: The lymph nodes and the lymph vessels. 

The lymph nodes filter out any harmful substances from the blood before they reach other parts of your body and fight against any infections that might have entered your bloodstream.

The other part, the lymph vessels, are like an extensive network of thin tubes that carry a clear fluid called 'lymph' to all areas of your body, including to organs such as your spleen and kidneys.

It is crucial to learn about the lymphatic system because it plays a paramount role in our overall health and well-being.

 

Types of Lymphedema

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. 

Primary lymphedema is initiated by hereditary factors and caused by a congenital abnormality. It's diagnosed when the condition has been present for some time or if it did not form correctly during fetal development.

Secondary lymphedema is when a person has another condition that affects their lymphatic system, such as injury to the arm or leg lymph vessels, surgery on the arm or leg, cancer treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy that affect the lymph nodes and vessels.

 

Treatment for Lymphedema

Treatment for lymphedema varies depending on the cause of the condition and severity. 

The success of lymphedema treatments is measured by how well they manage symptoms, prevent complications, and improve quality of life.

The benefits of lymphedema treatment include better management and control over symptoms like improved quality of life for patients who suffer from this condition.

 

Components of treatment:

Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is one way to reduce swelling in an arm or leg. Lymphatic drainage therapy is a technique that can be used in the treatment of lymphedema, with good results such as reduced swelling and restored mobility.

The MLD therapy involves applying pressure through a gentle massage technique that moves fluid through the body's lymphatic system. MLD can be used to treat all types of lymphedema, but it may not be suitable for people who have advanced stages of the disease or those who have had surgery on their lymph nodes.

 

Graduated compression garments help with lymphedema by providing compression to the limb, which can help with swelling and pain. The level of compression can be provided with garments, bandages, or velcro wraps. The pressure from the garment helps the trapped lymph fluid to flow through the system and acts as an added source of strength for your muscles to work against. This helps the flow of fluid to various parts of your body and allows lactic acid buildup in those regions to dissipate properly.

Compression garments help to stop the lymphedema from getting worse. The garments should cover the whole area of the swelling, allow you to move normally, be comfortable yet supportive, be chosen just for you and be replaced every 3 to 6 months. Compression garments are worn during the day and taken off at night. Bandaging and velcro wraps may be worn 24/7. All garments should be worn when doing exercise except swimming.  

 

Therapeutic exercises are beneficial because they improve the patient's quality of life. They can be performed at home and in a group setting with other patients, making them easy to follow. However, the patient must perform these exercises regularly; otherwise, there will be no benefits. 

The most common types of therapeutic exercises are:

  • Gentle range-of-motion exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Stretching
  • Massage therapy
  • Breathing techniques

 

Pneumatic compression pumps are medical devices that use air pressure through a sleeve to help fluid get circulation back into the body, resulting in a reduction of swelling. Using a non-peristaltic action, pumps move fluid distally to proximally, which improves both lymph flow and blood flow. The compression reduces the size of swollen tissues and improves circulation, which, in turn, reduces inflammation.

Moreover, when using a high-quality, multi-chamber pneumatic compression pump, they are often used in conjunction with other treatments such as manual lymphatic drainage, therapeutic exercise and graduated compression garments.  

 

Diligent skin care plays a crucial role in the treatment process for lymphedema because it can lead to skin breakdown, which will make lymphedema worse. Keeping the affected area clean, dry, moisturized and protected from the sun and bug bites can help prevent infection. Good hygiene, skin care and regular handwashing reduce the chance of infection. 

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, lymphedema is not a life-threatening condition; however, it can lead to significant complications if left untreated. Above all, people with lymphedema should seek medical help as soon as possible. 

Therefore, if you have any of the following symptoms and are worried about having lymphedema, then you should call the doctor:

  • swelling in the legs or arms that does not go away after a few days
  • significant weight gain in a short time
  • pain in the limbs that does not go away after a few days

For more information or assistance on lymphedema therapy products, contact us! We are here to help.


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