What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling generally located in the arms and legs due to a blockage in your lymphatic system. Approximatly 1/3 of women who undergo axillary lymph node disection during breast cancer treatment will develop lymphedema. Identifying lymphedema early helps ensure faster and better outcomes.

What does your lymphatic system do?

It collects lymph that includes excess fluids and proteins from the bodies tissues, and carries them back to the bloodstream. Lymph is moved slowly through lymphatic vessels and is passed through the lymph nodes. Swelling occurs when the lymph increases in the body tissues.

Risks for Lymphedema:

  • Had surgical removal of lymph nodes in the underarm, groin, or pelvic region.
  • Received radiation therapy to the underarm, groin, pelvic region, or neck.
  • Have scar tissue in the lymphatic ducts or veins causes by surgery or radiation.
  • Have cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, chest, underarm, pelvis, or abdomen.
  • Have tumors that put pressure on the lymphatic vessels or lymphatic duct that blocks drainage.
  • Have inflammation of the arm or leg after surgery.

Signs and symptoms:

  • Swelling in your ams, legs, shoulders, hands, fingers, and chest.
  • Skin that feels tighter, harder, or thicker than normal.
  • Aching or a feeling of heaviness in your arm or leg.
  • Weakness in your arm or leg.
  • Inability to move certain joints such as the wrist and ankles.
  • Pitting in the tissues of your limb.
  • Repeated infections in your arm and leg.
  • Joint pain.

How can a Physical Therapist help?

  • Perform manual therapy techniques such as tissue mobilization, to promote decreased swelling.
  • Help you order compression stockings and garments to help minimize the swelling.
  • Aplly compression wraps to reduce fluid retention, and promote better lymphatic drainage.
  • Facilitate the use of a pneumatic compression machine to help manage the swelling and symptoms at home.
  • Educate you on proper exercises to help increase circulation and strength.
  • Instruct you on better methods of skin care protection, diet, and limb positioning.
Thursday the 13th. Copyright 2012, Three Rivers Hospital