Lymphedema: What is it and how do we treat it?

By : Kristina Maxwell, Physiotherapist at Align


Lymphedema is an accumulation of protein rich swelling in the tissues of the limbs and/or trunk. This swelling can result in limb disability. This disease (yes, disease) is a result of a lymphatic system that is either faulty or damaged. The lymphatic system (closely related to the circulatory system) is resposible for draining substances that cannot be reabsorbed by the circulatory system (arteries, capillaries, veins).


            Lymphedema can be primary (congenital) or secondary (caused by an insult to the lymphatic system). The most common cause of lymphedema in the western hemisphere is damange to the lymphatic system caused by breast cancer surgery. According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, two out of five breast cancer patients will develop lymphedema within five years of surgery.


            Though there is currently no known cure for lymphedema, the disease can be effectively treated through complete decongestive therapy. Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is a cominbation of skin care, manual lymph drainage (MLD), compression, and decongestive exercises. Without CDT, a lymphedema patient is at an increased risk for complications and disability.


Here is some additional information to stay informed about lymphedema:

•                     Are the terms edema (regular swelling) and lymphedema interchangeable?

◦                     No. Edema is an accumulation of water in tissues. In the case of edema, the lymphatic system is intact and edema is a symptom of an acute trauma. Most cases of edema will resolve with rest and elevation. Lymphedema is a disease process.


•                     Is MLD a type of massage?

◦                     No. MLD is a combination of gentle, manual techniques applied in a specific way to re-reoute swelling to healthy lymph nodes to assist the body with re-absoprtion. MLD must be combined with the other 3 steps of CDT (skin care, compression, and decongestive exercise) in order to be effective.


•                     Can any therapist treat lymphedema?

◦                     No. Only a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) has undergone the specific training to appropriately treat lymphedema. Caregivers and massage therapists can be trained in basic MLD strokes and application of compression garments under the supervision of a CLT for maintainance after the patient has been de-congested.


To find out more about how to achieve your rehabilitation goals, contact a health care professional at Align Wellness Studio.


Eamon Wilson