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Knowing and Managing Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a swelling in the arm or leg caused by retention of fluid due to a blockage or damage in the lymphatic system. This condition prevents lymph fluid from draining properly leading to accumulation and swelling. Fluid starts to build up in the interstitial space causing enlargement of the affected area. This may occur in either one arm or one leg or may affect both arms or both legs.

What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema causes are either primary or secondary. In the first instance, the condition is inherent and not caused by any external circumstances but secondary lymphedema results from injury or the removal of lymph nodes.

 Idiopathic or primary lymphedema

This is a rare occurrence and a result of abnormal development of the lymph vessels. There are three causes of primary lymphedema – Milroy’s disease, Meige’s disease or lymphedema tarda. Milroy’s disease is congenital and sets in during infancy. It is characterized by the abnormal development of the lymph nodes. Meige’s disease or lymphedema praecox is a hereditary disorder in which the valves that prevent the lymph fluid from flowing backwards are not formed. This condition typically affects the lower legs and feet. It may set in before or after puberty and even at a later stage. Lymphedema tarda is a rare condition which sets in late, that is after the age of 35.

Secondary Lymphedema

Secondary lymphedema develops because of injury or damage to the lymph nodes during surgery or radiation. Cancer could furthermore be the cause of secondary lymphedema if the tumor happens to block the flow of the lymph fluid. Another cause is an infection of the lymph nodes which could lead to obstruction of lymph fluid flow thus resulting in lymphedema.

Breast Cancer and Lymphedema

Usually, breast cancer patients are found to be afflicted by this condition. Arm lymphedema is a common complication of breast cancer treatment. It happens during treatment when axillary dissection and axillary radiation therapy are used. In such a case, the swelling may not occur immediately but is noticed months or years after treatment.

Symptoms of lymphedema

  • Mild to severe swelling in a part of the arm or leg or the entire limb, including the fingers and toes.
  • Discomfort and pain in the affected limb.
  • Restricted mobility due to the swelling.
  • Recurring skin infection in the affected limb.
  • A feeling of heaviness or stiffness.
  • Hardening of the skin on the affected area.
  • Blister-like growth on the skin of the affected limb.
     

Complications of lymphedema

People with this condition may find that their body is more vulnerable to skin infections and changes. This is because the body does not have a continuous supply of lymphocytes which fight infection. Other complications include restricted mobility, psychological disorders and in rare cases, malignant transformation in which very severe cases of untreated lymphedema can be exposed to the risk of soft tissue cancer.

Controlling lymphedema

Lymphedema is not curable but controllable. Lymphedema management is more necessary through precautions and use of lymphedema compression garments. Using a lymphedema pump and compression garments can help bring down the swelling. Much research has been carried out by healthcare professionals on this condition. However, one’s personal healthcare provider is best positioned to answer all queries on this medical problem and how to go about lymphedema management.

Lymphedema treatment

Lymphedema therapy for controlling the condition includes measures like exercise, a strict diet to maintain normal body weight, bandaging, lymphatic massage and lymphedema compression garment use. All this help to keep the swelling and pain down. Some may not respond to these conservative methods and for them, there are surgical options, for example, suction-assisted lipectomy which is likely to provide long-term relief. Lymphedema patients should avoid exposure to high temperatures and try not to sleep on the arm over prolonged periods.
Lymphedema in the legs or arms can be treated or controlled through exercise and wrapping the affected limb with a bandage that is tightest around the fingers or toes. For lymphedema management, some people may employ manual lymph drainage technique which can be achieved through massage. Wearing compression garments is an effective measure to control lymphedema. One can wear a lymphedema arm sleeves , lymphedema wraps and conduct lymphedema drainage using a lymphedema pumps.
Wearing a compression garment during air travel may be required for lymphedema management because fall in pressure can cause swelling.

Lymphedema compression garments

Lymphedema can be controlled through the use of compression garments which help drain out the accumulated fluid from the swollen limb. Compression garments are widely available in the market. Manufacturers like Chattanooga have come out with a whole range for the legs, arms, and shoulders.

Huntleigh lymphedema pumps which, when used in conjunction with compression garments, are ideal for effective compression therapy in the home as well as the clinic.

Juzo hand gauntlets and compression arm sleeves are also effective in providing relief from lymphedema and can be worn as a preventive measure, too.

Lymphedivas compression products include a varied range of arm sleeves with or without gauntlet. They prevent and manage mild to moderate upper extremity lymphedema.