At OC Sports & Rehab, we specialize in the treatment of lymphedema. For both our lymphatic patients as well as other patients in our facility, there is a lot of curiosity surrounding the condition and not much public awareness or education about it. Most of the general population has no idea what lymphedema is or what causes it. Many would be surprised to learn that lymphedema affects more than 5 million Americans, which is more than the number of people affected by muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and AIDS combined. Lymphedema also often goes undiagnosed, only further contributing to the lack of education and awareness. Read on to learn more about this fascinating condition.
Lymphedema quite literally means swelling caused by lymphatic dysfunction. Your lymphatic system is the system can be compared to your body’s sewage system. It’s made up a large network of vessels and nodes that collect and carry lymph, a fluid made of up cellular waste, such as dead cells and proteins, from your body’s tissues. When the lymphatic system is healthy, it filters all of this waste appropriately and doesn’t build up and cause swelling. However, when the system is damaged, it can create dysfunction in the system, causing swelling, and creating a world of trouble.
Symptom of Lymphedema
The main symptom of lymphedema is swelling in the extremities. Sometimes this occurs in one arm or leg, an arm and a leg on the same side, or in both legs. Many people first notice that their watch or jewelry is tighter on one side, or that one shoe slides on easier than the other. Sometimes patients have an equal amount of swelling in both extremities, sometimes one is abnormally much more swollen than the other. Sometimes medications, such as calcium channel blockers, can inadvertently create swelling. Swelling from lymphatic dysfunction typically doesn’t go away when you elevate the area. Taking diuretics also doesn’t often help because lymph is made up of protein-rich fluid, not water.
There are 2 main types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is genetically inherited, and secondary lymphedema is acquired at some point in life by a variety of complications. Lymphedema can develop as a result of surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. The most common causes of lymphedema include a family history of the condition, removal of lymph modes or treatment with radiation as part of cancer treatment, recurrent cellulitis (a bacterial inflammatory infection of the skin), chronic venous insufficiency or other long-term problems with circulation in the veins, and obesity.
It’s important to understand that there is no cure for lymphedema. Once there is dysfunction in the system, or there is complete removal or destruction of lymph nodes or vessels, they do not heal. Early detection is crucial, because if the swelling gets too bad, the extremities can become so heavy that a patient becomes bedridden. The swelling can also become so intense that the lymphatic fluid seeps through the skin. This is known as weeping, and it can cause more infection if not taken care of immediately.
There are a few ways lymphedema can be treated. Today, there is finally more research out there on the topic, but as of 5+ years ago, the same could not be said. As a result, treatment options aren’t as plentiful as most health care professionals would probably like, but there are a few. It should also be stressed again that treatment of lymphedema is for maintenance of the condition only. There is no cure. That said, one of the most fundamental treatments for the condition is Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), a special type of massage meant to mimic the pumping of lymph through the body. Another common tool is the use of compression garments to keep an appropriate amount of pressure on the system to help with circulation. Your doctor may also prescribe specific exercises designed to target the muscles that assist in pumping lymphatic fluid around the body. In recent years, the use of pneumatic compression pumps have been an astoundingly effective form of treatment, especially when used in conjunction with the other forms of treatment mentioned. Another important aspect of treatment is good hygiene, proper skin care, and a healthy diet. Again, a proper diagnosis is vital to know how to treat and keep the condition under control.
What to Look For
If you or a loved one have noticed abnormal swelling in the extremities, any changes in the texture or color of the skin or any cramping or heaviness in the extremities, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. If diagnosed early, treatment can be completely manageable. Your doctor can refer you to a physical therapist who specializes in treatment of the condition, like myself and my staff! We have cutting-edge research published with Mission Hospital and boast a 92% success rate. We use a multi-dimensional approach, utilizing several forms of treatment to decrease your swelling and symptoms as much as possible. We are here to support your and your family members, and provide our patients with the best care possible. We want to see our patients get better and get back to doing the activities they enjoy. Check out our website to learn more about our highly specialized treatment of lymphedema, in addition to the other services we offer. You can also read the bios of our wonderfully educated therapists, assistants, and aides who will ensure your time at our facility is as pleasant and effective as possible!
Cary Costa, PT