Lymphedema is swelling of the arm, breast, trunk or leg from an accumulation of lymph fluid due to a change in the lymphatic or vascular system. It can also occur in the face, neck, abdomen or lungs. Women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer (including removal of lymph nodes, chemotherapy and radiation) are at particular risk for developing lymphedema with approximately 30 percent of women with breast cancer developing lymphedema sometime throughout their lives.
Lymphedema can even develop several years after cancer treatment. Aside from swelling, lymphedema often causes a feeling of heaviness, discomfort and an increased risk for infection to the affected area. While lymphedema is a chronic condition, it can be managed with proper treatment and many people with lymphedema are able to lead healthy, active lifestyles.
Types Of Lymphedema
Primary cases are those that occur without any obvious cause. They may be present at birth, at adolescence, or develop after age 35. Some cases are familial as well as congenital. Primary lymphedema is more common in females and occurs more often in the lower extremities.
An injury, scarring, or excision of the lymph nodes causes secondary lymphedema. This usually occurs as a result of previous radiation and/or surgery of lymph nodes in the area near your cancer.
Complete Lymphedema Treatment
Our therapists use the Complete Decongestive Therapy management strategy. This lymphedema treatment includes the following elements:
- Evaluation is provided by a certified lymphedema therapist.
- Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is a specialized massage technique, which improves the activity and function of the lymph vessels. MLD helps to re-route the lymph flow around the blocked areas into more centrally located lymph vessels that drain into the venous system.
- Compression therapy bandaging increases the tissue pressure and is applied between treatments to prevent re-accumulation of evacuated lymph fluid.
- Lymphatic exercises, or decongestive exercises, are performed while wearing decongestive bandages to aid in further reduction of the swollen extremity.
- Patient education is the aspect that provides each patient with the knowledge of how to manage his or her lymphedema.
- Compression garments are an important way to manage symptoms of lymphedema as a transition to independent management and are less bulky than lymphedema wraps.
- Aquatic therapy, which uses the therapeutic properties of water to allow comfortable exercise and swelling reduction, is a recent addition to the lymphedema management strategies. Aquatic therapy is an option at our facility for patients who are comfortable in this environment.
The physical therapists at our Charlottesville lymphedema treatment center have special training, experience and certification in lymphatic studies. In cooperation with referring physicians, therapists use a medically proven approach called Combined or Complex Decongestive Therapy (CDT). This lymphedema treatment is designed to promote the flow of lymph fluid and reduce swelling.