While most of us have heard of the lymph nodes, many are unsure of what the lymph nodes do or how they are important. The lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system and the nodes help filter bacteria (and cancer) cells from the body. Lymphedema refers to swelling in the arms or legs (usually) due to blockage of the lymph nodes; lymphedema usually occurs in only one arm or leg but can occur in both.
What is Lymphedema?
While that question was briefly answered above, it is important to understand what lymphedema is not. Lymphedema is not the same thing as lymphoma. These two similar words describe very different medical conditions. With lymphedema pain and swelling occurs from lymph fluid pooling in the spaces between the cells due to backed up lymph nodes; lymphedema is not cancer. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell found in the bloodstream, the lymphatic system, and the lymphoid organs (Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP).
Rarely, lymphedema can be present at birth, develop at the onset of puberty or in adulthood (all for unknown causes) or in association with vascular anomalies (such as Port Wine Stain, hemangioma, etc). Lymphedema in any of those cases is called primary lymphedema.
Much more common is "secondary lymphedema" or "acquired lymphedema" which can develop from surgery (days, weeks, or even years later), radiation, infection, or trauma (National Lymphedema Network). In the West it is common for women to experience lymphedema after having surgery related to breast cancer; if lymph nodes are damaged or removed and remaining lymph nodes can't compensate for the removed nodes lymphedema can occur in the woman's arm. Radiation treatment can scar or inflame the lymph nodes and if those become big enough to block the nodes lymphedema can occur.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
Swelling is the biggest indicator of lymphedema (of either part of the limb or the entire limb including fingers or toes). Other lymphedema symptoms can include a "heaviness" or tight feeling in a limb, restricted movement in an arm or leg, recurring infections in the limb, and/or hardening or thickening of your skin on the arm or leg. Anytime you have persistent swelling you should consult a medical professional.
Standard treatment for lymphedema can include range of motion exercises, manual lymph drainage (MLD), and compression. An antibiotic may be included in the lymphedema treatment, especially if the lymphedema has been caused by an infection. Carefully designed by a physical therapist, light exercises can help with the lymphatic drainage (however the exercises shouldn't cause further swelling or make you tired).
Manual lymph drainage is a special massage technique to help the lymph fluid drain through the proper channels (and out of your swollen limb). The direction of the massage strokes in MLD is based on the structure of the lymphatic system. You shouldn't utilize massage for lymphedema if you have received radiation therapy, have active cancer, a skin infection, blood clots, or congestive heart failure (Mayo Clinic).
Lymphedema compression utilizes compression garments and compression devices. Compression garments are specially designed to encourage the flow of lymph fluid out of your infected limb. There are a wide variety of compression garments including compression arm sleeves, compression leg sleeves, compression stockings, and compression socks. Your doctor may ask you to wear compression garments both while you are swollen with lymphedema and in the future to further protect you from swelling again. You will receive the most benefit from a compression garment which fits properly. Numerous stores have people trained to help you find the best fitting compression garment. For detailed information on compression stockings, click here. Other compression devices (sometimes called lymphedema pumps) such as the ThermoActive Hot Cold Compression product line provides a patented hand pump to allow you to customize not only the fit of the compression device but also the intensity of the compression (simultaneous hot or cold therapy is optional).
There are alternative therapies to help relieve pain associated with lymphedema such as acupuncture and even a whole body vibration machine.
Rarely is surgery used as a lymphedema treatment because the surgeon must have a lot of experience with the specific procedure and you could still need physical therapy after surgery to reduce lymphedema.
Outlook for Lymphedema
While swelling is usually thought of as a symptom of a health condition, lymphedema is a chronic disease to itself. Lymphedema treatments can help manage lymphedema, but this there is no known cure. While the disease can improve over time, most people will need lifelong management of their lymphedema. Take advantage of controlling the aspects of your lifestyle and health you can by practicing stress management, eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables, take care of the affected limb (even daily care like lotion and close inspection helps), and try to get a night of restful sleep. Connecting with other lymphedema sufferers through local support groups or online forums is also helpful. At any point if you feel overwhelmed by your lymphedema, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about your feelings and current health condition.
written by: Kate Harvey, ActiveForever.com
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