Lymphedema is the swelling in one or more extremities due to an impaired flow of the lymphatic system. While it most commonly occurs in the limbs, lymphedema can occur in any area of the body. The lymphatic system is a network of lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels with the primary function to transport and filter lymph fluid throughout the body. The fluid is carried to the lymph nodes, which filter waste products and contain infection-fighting cells. When the lymphatic system is compromised, an excess of high-protein fluid gathers in a designated area, creating lymphedema.
While there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be reduced and controlled with lifelong management.
Causes of Lymphedema
Lymphedema can manifest in two ways:
- Primary lymphedema: A rare, inherited condition in which lymph nodes and lymph vessels are absent or abnormal. It typically affects just the legs and is more common in women than men. This condition can be present at birth, developed during puberty, or after age 35.
- Secondary lymphedema: Caused by a blockage or cut in the lymphatic system, usually the lymph nodes in the groin or armpit area. Blockages may be caused by infection, cancer, or scar tissue from radiation therapy or the surgical removal of lymph nodes. Surgeries for the treatment of the breast, uterine/cervical, melanoma, prostate, and throat/mouth cancers may lead to the incidence of lymphedema.
Stages of Lymphedema
- Stage 1 (mild): Upon waking in the morning, the limb or affected area is almost a normal size. The tissue is still in a “pitting stage” (when pressed by a finger the area indents and holds the indentation).
- Stage 2 (moderate): The tissue is “non-pitting” (when pressed by a finger the tissue bounces back without leaving an indentation). The tissue has a spongy consistency.
- Stage 3 (severe): The tissue at this stage is hard (fibrotic) and will be unresponsive to the touch. The swelling is irreversible and the limb is very large and swollen. Infections are possible at any stage of lymphedema but occurrence becomes greater as stages progress. A swollen limb, left untreated, becomes hard (fibrotic) and full of lymph fluid which is high in protein and a perfect medium for bacteria and infections.
While there is no cure for lymphedema, treatment methods can be implicated to decrease edema, pain, and the risk of infection, while also increasing the patient’s mobility. Nanticoke Rehabilitation Services offer lymphedema treatment with both physical and occupational therapists certified in lymphedema. Treatment offers a comprehensive approach tailored for the patient’s needs in a warm, friendly environment. After evaluation, a typical treatment program usually takes two to six weeks and includes any or all of the following:
- Manual Lymph Drainage Massage
- Multilayer Compression Bandaging
- Sequential Compression Pumps
- Skin Care Management & Treatment
- Decongestive Therapeutic Exercise
- Kinesio Taping
- Self-Management Instructions
- Recommendations for Compression Garments
Each treatment session is one-on-one and individualized to accommodate the patient’s needs and maximize functional outcomes.
Lymphedema Support Group
In addition to treatment, Nanticoke Rehabilitation Services also offers a FREE lymphedema support group, held on the second Monday of each month at the Nanticoke Training Center located within the Miller Building at 121 S. Front Street in Seaford from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm.
This group is open to anyone affected by lymphedema including patients, caregivers, and relatives. Meetings will consist of a lecture by health care professionals and medical equipment providers followed by refreshments and an open question and answer session or discussion among participants. Registration is not required.