Lymphedema: Overview, symptoms and treatment options

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Lymphedema refers to swelling in the arms or legs and is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. While there is no cure for the condition, it can be managed with early diagnosis and care and treatment of the affected limb. Understanding how to recognize lymphedema is the first step to diagnosing and treating it as quickly as possible.

What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is swelling, usually in the arms or legs, caused by an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the body’s soft tissues. It is most commonly seen in people who have undergone cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. During treatment, the lymph nodes are removed or damaged and the lymphatic fluid does not drain properly from the body. 

Other causes of lymphedema include infection, trauma, obesity and chronic venous insufficiency, a condition where the walls and/or valves in the leg veins are not working effectively, causing blood to pool in these veins.

Symptoms can range from mild swelling and discomfort to extensive swelling with secondary skin changes such as skin infection.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?
Lymphedema is unpredictable. Symptoms can develop right after cancer treatment or months to years later. If you are at risk for lymphedema, watch for these early symptoms:
Arm or leg appears to be of different size
Puffiness of the skin
Skin redness
Tight, inflexible joints
Difficulty seeing or feeling veins and tendons in hands and feet

As the condition progresses, watch for these signs:
Swelling in arms, legs or other areas of concern
Skin tightness when wearing clothing and/or jewelry
Uncomfortable heaviness or fullness
Burning or itching sensations
Thickening of the skin

If you notice any of these symptoms, especially after cancer treatment, call your health care provider right away. Early treatment is important to keep swelling controlled.

Lymphedema treatment at McLaren Port Huron
McLaren Port Huron offers lymphedema treatment at our Port Huron and Marysville Physical Therapy locations. Our certified lymphedema therapists will work with you to create a customized treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms and meet the following goals:
Reduce the size of the affected limb
Decrease the pain associated with excessive limb size
Improve the function and mobility of the limb
Decrease the risk for infection or hospitalization
Self-management of symptoms

Treatment plans include:

Patient Education: Patients will be educated on good hygiene and skin care, precautions and prevention.
Therapeutic Exercises: Patients will learn exercises specific to their needs that will keep the fluid moving within the body and reduce swelling. 
Manual Lymph Drainage: A massage technique that opens lymphatic pathways and gently moves fluid to areas where it can be reabsorbed into the system.
Compression Therapy: Compression is used to move fluid out of the affected limb and decrease swelling. Includes multi-layer bandaging, where short stretch bandages are used to create levels of pressure to move fluid out of the swollen limb. Compression garments, such as sleeves and stockings, can be worn once the fluid is moved out of the swollen limb to help control swelling. 

Compression and bandaging materials can be costly and are not covered by some insurance plans. Thanks to the local non-profit Taking a Shot at Breast Cancer, breast cancer patients treating for lymphedema at McLaren Port Huron do not need to be concerned with the cost of these materials. The non-profit recently donated $10,000 to supply breast cancer patients with compression and bandaging materials so patients can focus on healing.

Lymphedema isn’t generally life-threatening, but it’s a life-long condition. Controlling swelling and preventing infection in swollen areas is essential to good health. With the help of McLaren Port Huron’s lymphedema specialists, you can better manage your symptoms. To make an appointment, call the Port Huron location at 810-385-5531 or the Marysville location at 810-364-1230.