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

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 is a result of a lymphatic system that is either faulty or damaged. The lymphatic system, which is closely related to the circulatory system, is responsible for draining substances that cannot be reabsorbed by the circulatory system.

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 damage 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, or CDT, is a combination of skincare, manual lymph drainage, compression, and decongestive exercises. Without CDT, a lymphedema patient is at an increased risk for complications and disability.

Here are some frequently asked questions about lymphedema:

Q: Are the terms “edema” (regular swelling) and “lymphedema” interchangeable?
A: 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.

Q: Is manual lymph drainage a type of massage?
A: No. Manual lymph drainage is a combination of gentle, manual techniques applied in a specific way to re-route swelling to healthy lymph nodes to assist the body with reabsorption. Manual lymph drainage must be combined with the other three steps of complete decongestive therapy — skincare, compression, and decongestive exercise — in order to be effective.

Q: Can any therapist treat lymphedema?
A: No. Only a certified lymphedema therapist who has undergone specific training can appropriately treat lymphedema. Caregivers and massage therapists can be trained in basic manual lymph drainage strokes and application of compression garments under the supervision of a certified lymphedema therapist for maintenance after the patient has been decongested.

Kristina Maxwell is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Lymphedema Therapist. You can find our more about Lymphedema by contact Kristina by clicking here.

Eamon Wilson