Lymphedema Management

The lymphatic system is a part of the body’s circulatory system that collects fluid from tissues in all parts of the body and returns the fluid to the blood. It removes impurities, including bacteria and cancer cells, from the circulatory system and produces important disease-fighting cells for the immune system.

Lymphedema is the failure of the body's pathways to redirect lymph fluid after a blockage occurs in the lymphatic system. This results in chronic swelling in a portion of the body (usually an arm or leg) due to accumulation of the lymph fluid (protein and water) in the tissue spaces as a result of obstruction of venous and/or lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes. This blockage may result from surgery, radiation, injury or a birth defect.

Maury Regional Health has physical therapists specially trained to provide comprehensive lymphedema treatment and breast cancer recovery assistance. Treatment for lymphedema is provided at our therapy centers in Columbia, Spring Hill, Lewisburg and Pulaski. A physician’s order is necessary to initiate treatment. Our staff is available to assist you in this process, if needed.

Signs and symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Increase in size of your arm or leg 
  • Feeling of heaviness or puffiness of arm or leg

Contact your physician if you notice:    

  • Swelling or heat in the trunk on the same side as your surgery
  • Feeling of tenderness in groin or bloated abdomen following pelvic surgery
  • Red patches on your arm or leg

What are the causes of lymphedema?

There are two types of lymphedema. Primary lymphedema may be congenital or occur at any age for no known reason. Secondary lymphedema is more common and may develop after surgical removal of lymph nodes or other obstructing factors including scarring from infection or radiation therapy. It may happen immediately after treatment or many years later.

Why should lymphedema be treated?

Lymphedema, if left untreated, creates swollen limbs with an environment of stagnant, protein-rich fluid that interferes with wound healing and provides an environment for bacteria, increasing the potential for infection. Infections lead to loss of motion of the limbs, weakness and skin break-down. If the condition of swelling continues, the tissue eventually thickens and beomes fibrotic (hardens). In severe cases, a rare form of cancer may develop.

What treatments are available?

A comprehensive lymphedema treatment program that is research-based and tailored to the individual’s needs has proven most effective. A lymphedema treatment program may include any or all of the following:

  • Evaluation to determine the personal course of treatment
  • Manual lymph treatment, a light hands-on technique, to drain the fluid from the are of the body where the blockage is occurring
  • Compression bandaging of the limb to reduce the protein-rich fluid in the swollen tissue
  • Comprehensive fitness program, including exercises, strengthening and aerobic activities to enhance lymph flow
  • Sequential compression pump, a pneumatic pump used at low pressure on the extremity to maximize edema reduction
  • Skin care and diet recommendations
  • Compression garment recommendations

Individuals who have experienced the onset of swelling due to heredity, trauma, venous insufficiency, lymph node removal and/or radiation are candidates for evaluation. If there is a question regarding active cancer or infections, further physician review will be required.

With early intervention and skilled treatment, the condition can be controlled, allowing the individual to lead a full and normal life. However, this is frequently a persistent condition; therefore, techniques for self-management and maintenance of swelling reduction and other side effects are essential.

How can I prevent or control lymphedema?

  • Check your skin daily
  • Prevent infection
  • Avoid fatigue and injury
  • Use sunscreen
  • Wear oven mitts or rubber gloves for household tasks and gardening
  • Avoid tight, constrictive clothing or jewelry
  • Perform mild to moderate exercise 20 minutes per day, three times per week
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Consult a physician immediately for any sign of infection
  • Avoid having blood pressure and lab work in your affected extremity
  • Maintain optimum weight