More than three million Americans suffer the physical and psychological effects of lymphedema, a condition that can occur when an insufficient or damaged lymph system fails to drain lymph fluid from the tissues of the body. Lymphedema can lead to severe swelling and pain in the extremities.
There are a variety of causes for lymphedema; however, one of the more widely recognized causes in the US is cancer and cancer treatment.
Approximately 35 to 40 percent of women with breast cancer will develop lymphedema following axillary (underarm) node surgery or radiation therapy. Lymphedema in the legs may occur following surgery for prostate or testicular cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, lymphoma or melanoma.
Left untreated, the swelling can become painful and infection can become a serious risk. While no cure is currently available for lymphedema, there is hope for patients who take precautions and manage their symptoms.
Signs of Lymphedema
According to the National Cancer Institute, possible signs of lymphedema include:
- Swelling of an arm or leg, which may include fingers and toes.
- A full or heavy feeling in an arm or leg.
- A tight feeling in the skin.
- Trouble moving a joint in the arm or leg.
- Thickening of the skin, with or without skin changes such as blisters or warts.
- A feeling of tightness when wearing clothing, shoes, bracelets, watches, or rings.
- Itching of the legs or toes.
- A burning feeling in the legs.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Loss of hair.
Other conditions may cause the same symptoms, so a doctor should be consulted if any of the problems above occur. Learn more about Lymphedema from the National Cancer Institute.
Treatment for Lymphedema
The Lymphedema Program at Holy Cross Hospital aims to reduce the swelling and pain associated with lymphedema and to educate patients to monitor, maintain, and improve their condition throughout their lifetime. Clinicians that provide lymphedema services at Holy Cross Hospital include physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants.
Treatment for lymphedema may include the following:
- Skin care: The patient is educated in precautions to protect the skin and avoid infection, in proper use of skin care products, and an individualized skin care program
- Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD): Manual lymphatic drainage is a specific superficial manual technique that facilitates the opening of collateral lymphatic pathways.
- Multi-layer bandaging: Bandaging consists of a technique involving three primary layers of bandages applied to the affected area to facilitate lymph flow.
- Individualized exercise program: Exercise programs are tailored to each patient to enhance lymphatic drainage and also restore strength, flexibility, endurance, and function.
- Patient education: Patients are educated about their condition, the goals and purpose of the treatment regimen, as well as life-long skin care.