Lymphedema Causes, Signs and Treatment

Janet Riordan, PT, CLT-LANA
Lymphedema Awareness

What is lymphedema is a common question. Lymphedema is a condition that is associated with swelling in any area of the body. While it is usually in the arm or leg, it may also include the head and neck, breast, trunk and genitals.

Lymphedema causes

Lymphedema is due to injury or damage to the lymphatic system – the way your body gets rid of toxins and waste. Any condition or procedure that damages your lymphatic system can cause lymphedema, including surgery and radiation.

One of the most common causes in the United States is a procedure known as axillary node surgery, most commonly associated with breast cancer treatment. Other causes may include genetic disorders of the lymphatic system or long-term overload of the venous system (venous insufficiency), as well as infection or trauma.

Lymphedema signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms can take months or years to develop after cancer treatment. The most common signs include feeling:

  • fullness or heaviness
  • a tightening of the skin or skin changes, such as thickening
  • less flexibility in hand, wrist, foot or ankle
  • clothes fit tighter in one specific area or ring, watch, bracelet or shoe feels tight

Lymphedema treatment and management

There is currently no cure for lymphedema, but the condition can be managed by taking the appropriate steps. First, early diagnosis and education are key to good long-term management of your condition. It is always best to receive care from a trained lymphedema specialist.

If you suspect you may have lymphedema, or have any new swelling, your doctor will need to see you to make sure you do not have an infection or blood clot. Your therapist can evaluate your swelling and develop a plan to help manage your condition. You will also receive information and education on how to care for your swelling and skin.

Treatment often includes manual lymphatic drainage, a specialized massage technique to assist with redirecting the flow of the lymph fluid. Compression is also a key to managing your condition, and includes multi-layer compression bandaging, reduction garment and/or compression garments, or a compression sleeve or stocking.

Early surveillance program

At Rhode Island, The Miriam and Newport hospitals, we developed an early surveillance program as part of our multidisciplinary breast clinic in February of 2019.

Through this program, all women or men with breast cancer that involves the lymph nodes being removed are seen prior to surgery by a physical therapist. The therapist will get measurements of both arms prior to surgery to allow us to quickly identify any swelling following surgery and take preventative steps. Patients are then seen two weeks after surgery, then every three months for a year.

Compression sleeves are recommended, lymphedema education is provided, and shoulder movement is assessed as well, along with recommendations for strengthening exercises.

March 6 is World Lymphedema Day

World Lymphedema Day (WLD) was established in 2016, to increase awareness and education about lymphedema and the extent of this global condition. It is an annual advocate-driven celebration, in response to a bill written by the Lymphatic Education & Research Network. The success of WLD depends on your efforts to educate the world. Click here to see all the ways you can get involved, leave your comments and share your story.

For more information on lymphedema, visit our website.

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