Lymphedema Overview

What is Lymphedema?
How to Recognize Lymphedema
Who is at Risk for Lymphedema?
What are the Complications of Lymphedema?
What is the treatment for Lymphedema?
What to expect during your initial visit

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a swelling that results from an abnormal accumulation of protein rich fluid in the tissues.  It occurs because of a malfunction of the lymphatic system. Lymphedema is a chronic condition for which there is currently no cure; however, it can be successfully managed if proper treatment is initiated.  Lymphedema is classified as either primary or secondary.

Primary (hereditary) lymphedema is the result of a congenital malformation of the lymphatic system. It can occur without obvious cause at any age.  It usually affects the lower extremities, and family history may play a role.

Secondary (acquired) lymphedema is due to a known cause such as trauma, surgery, or radiation involving the lymph nodes and vessels.

How to Recognize Lymphedema

The most common initial symptom is swelling. Jewelry and clothing may feel tighter.   Some may also experience numbness, stiffness or a feeling of heaviness in the affected area.    

Who is at Risk for Lymphedema?

Anyone who has undergone surgery with lymph node removal and/or radiation is at risk for developing lymphedema.  The condition can occur at any time.  Additionally at risk are those suffering from chronic venous insufficiency, severe obesity, or a family history of swelling in the lower extremities. 

What are the Complications of Lymphedema?

The most serious complication is a skin infection called cellulitis, which commonly presents as redness, heat, achiness or flu-like symptoms.  Other complications are loss of strength, functional disability, pain and cosmetic deformity. 

What is the treatment for Lymphedema?

The most effective treatment for lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT).  This treatment involves several steps. 

Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) involves specific movements stimulating the lymphatic system to help evacuate fluid from the edematous limb. It is very relaxing and pleasant for the patient.

Compression through bandaging or garments usually follows the MLD treatment to keep the fluid from re-accumulating. 

Exercises are performed while the limb is compressed, which further enhances lymphatic drainage.  An individualized exercise program is reviewed with the therapist.

Instructions in self care, including skin care, are important steps to prevent the complications of lymphedema. Self care prepares the individual for independent management of his or her condition.

In summary, the goal of CDT is to reduce the edema, restore function, improve cosmetic appearance and to teach the patient to be as independent as possible and to be in control of the lymphedema.

What to expect during your initial visit

The goal of the first visit is to get acquainted with the therapist who reviews your medical history and discusses a plan of care.  Duration and frequency of treatment, including the patient’s participation, will be addressed at that time.