Lymphedema Treatment: What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema treatment is needed when lymphedema is present: lymphedema is swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages that drain fluid from the tissues throughout the body.
Lymphedema treatment includes:
- Compression (usually with multilayered bandages)
- Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
- Range of motion exercises
Manual lymph drainage (lymphedema management) is a light massage therapy technique in which the skin is moved in certain directions based on the structure of the lymphatic system. This helps the lymph fluid drain through the proper channels. Wearing compression stockings on the affected area or using a pneumatic compression pump on and off may be helpful. Your doctor and physical therapist will decide which compression methods are best.
A Brief Anatomy Lesson
The lymphatic system makes white blood cells to fight infection that invades your body. The system also removes impurities and waste products from the tissues of your body.
All lymph fluid is filtered through lymph nodes, many of which are located in your groin, your armpits, at the sides of your neck and underneath your skin. Lymph nodes vary from the size of a pea to a pinhead and act as a filtration station. If
bacteria or infection are present in your body, the lymphatic system filters them. Filtered lymph fluid is then carried toward the heart and dumped into the venous system where it is re-circulated into the body.
Lymphedema: A Malfunction of the Lymphatic System
Lymphedema is a condition where your lymphatic system is not working properly. Lymphedema can be an inherited disease (primary) or it can develop after surgery, radiation or trauma (secondary) where the lymph nodes of the armpit or groin have been affected. Most lymphedema occurs in the arms or legs, although it is fairly common in the chest, breast and genitalia.
The most noticeable symptoms of lymphedema is swelling in your limbs that makes your arms or legs feel heavy, thick or tight. This usually begins in the foot/ankle or forearm/hand areas, but it can begin in the thigh or upper arm. Lymphedema treatment is needed and should begin as soon as possible when this kind of swelling persists.
As episodes of lymphedema recur, the buildup of waste products and proteins cause the tissues to become hard and thick, a condition called fibrosis. Long-term effects of lymphedema include damage to lymphatic vessels and nodes, as well as a decrease in the oxygen and nutrient supply to the cells.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT OF LYMPHEDEMA
At times, lymphedema can be difficult to diagnose especially if you have primary or inherited lymphedema. Inherited lymphedema may not show up for decades. For this kind lf lymphedema, a test called lymphangioscintography can be performed.
Manual Lymph Drainage
MLD is a specialized lymphedema treatment that involves manipulation of the lymphatic vessels with gentle stretching of the skin.
Compression Bandages and Garments
The second phase of the therapy utilizes short- or low-stretch compression bandage wraps. Compression bandaging is a very effective, multi-layered technique used to assist in fluid removal and keeps swelling minimized while you are receiving MLD treatments. With lymphedema, skin and underlying tissues are overstretched and will automatically refill with more fluid unless they are supported and compressed. This is why compression bandaging is a critical component in treating lymphedema. Patients wear the bandages 24 hours per day during the first phase of treatments and take them off only for therapy and bathing.
More about Compression…
During the first phase of treatment, the size of the arm or leg will change dramatically. The bandages the therapist applies will need to be changed daily to fit the changing limb size and shape. When bandages are applied correctly, they provide safe compression to reduce swelling and soften the hard, dense tissue that sometimes forms with long-term lymphedema. Patients should measure the circumference of their affected limb on a weekly basis and note any unusual swelling. Some minor swelling, like that which occurs in hot weather, with increased activity, or during a menstrual cycle is normal. You’re your therapist if swelling increases beyond these circumstances
The best diet for lymphedema patients is filled with healthy fruits and vegetables along with foods that are low in salt, fat and caffeine. Drink a lot of water and eat foods that are high in fiber. Watch your weight and try to stay as close to your healthy weight as possible. Being overweight complicates lymphedema and puts you at a higher risk for other diseases. Because lymphedema fluid is high in protein, one might think a low protein diet would be beneficial. It’s not, since dietary protein is not the same as the protein in lymphedema fluid. Your body needs adequate amounts of dietary protein to carry out all body functions.
For More Information…
We recommend reading, “Nutritherapy for Lymphedema” by Arlette Dinclaux, a health and nutrition expert for more information about nutrition and diet. In her book, Dinclaux advises “to purify the system, 80% of the diet should consist of alkaline-forming foods including apples, cantaloupe, cherries, figs, asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, cultured dairy products like buttermilk and yogurt, grains like millet and corn, herbal teas, honey and almonds. Acid-forming foods, which should make up only 20% of the diet include citrus fruits, all meats, fish, poultry, alcoholic beverages, coffee, lentils, onions, oats, and all breads.”
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