Consult a Physical Therapist to Manage Lymphedema

Improper drainage results in a build-up of the lymph fluid in body organs, which eventually generates adverse health risks. There are two categories of lymphedema: primary, meaning it occurs on its own, and secondary, meaning it occurs as a result of an alternative disease or condition. 

Primary lymphedema is an inherited abnormality and may show at birth, puberty, or menopause. Some primary lymphedema is hereditary and can affect various limbs. Secondary lymphedema may also develop due to surgery unrelated to cancer and other causes such as infections, trauma, venous/lymphatic insufficiency, or filariasis. 

Some Signs And Symptoms

Lymphedema signs and symptoms may occur in some parts of the body but mainly it affects the arm or leg. The symptoms may include:

  • Swelling of some part or entire organ including toes and fingers
  • Aching or discomfort
  • Constraint range of motion
  • Hardening and thickening of bone
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness 
  • Recurring infections

The swelling caused due to the impact of lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme changes that make the limb hard to use. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until weeks or months after the treatment.

What Causes Lymphedema?

Primary lymphedema may be caused by alterations in some of the genes involved in the development of the lymphatic system. These faulty genes obstruct the development of the lymphatic system, undermining its ability to drain fluid properly.

Secondary lymphedema has several causes including:

  • Infections
  • Radiation therapy
  • Cancer surgery
  • Injury or trauma
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Inflammatory conditions

Some factors that may increase the risk of development of lymphedema after cancer, from cancer treatment or from other secondary causes may include older age, obesity or rheumatoid. Women that undergo surgery for breast cancer are unaware of the fact that they are at risk of developing lymphedema and they need to be educated about the signs and symptoms of it.

How Can Physical Therapies Help?

The physical therapist is a certified trainer and would serve as an important member of your healthcare team. He/she will work closely with you to design a treatment program to help control the swelling and achieve your goals for returning back to normal life.

In the early stages of lymphedema, when the swelling is mild, it often can be managed by techniques that encourage lymph flow such as compression garments, the elevation of the affected limb and mild exercise.

For more severe symptoms, the physical therapist may develop a treatment plan to help improve the flow of lymph fluid. This program may include:

  • Decongestive lymphedema therapy is the primary treatment for moderate to severe lymphedema. It mobilizes lymph and dissipates fibrosclerotic tissue.
  • Bandaging is a reductive therapy as it makes the limb smaller. The bandage cast helps prevent fluid from flowing into the limb backwards and it also softens the tissue under the skin. This is an important treatment for lymphedema that causes moderate to severe swelling or soft tissue changes.
  • Manual lymph drainage is also a light massage designed to increase lymphatic drainage.
  • Fastidious skincare is essential to stop secondary skin infections.
  • Light exercises suggested by the physical therapist are also of great relevance and promote the flow of lymph and protein absorption via muscle contraction.   

In very severe cases, surgery may be required to reduce the swelling.

Final Words

Truly, there is no exact cure for lymphedema and it is a progressive condition. The outlook will rely to some extent on the severity of its symptoms.

Following a healthy lifestyle including a balanced diet, physical therapies and exercises can help alleviate the fluid build-up and stimulate the flow of lymph. Adherence to the advice of a physician and physical therapist in a synchronous way would be the best option for you.

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