Lymphedema is the build up of protein-rich fluid in the tissues beneath the skin. This is a type of swelling. Lymphedema is usually found in the arms or legs but can be found in the head, neck, face, trunk or any part of the body. Lymphedema happens when there is something not working as it should and most commonly occurs secondary to a blockage.
Early symptoms of lymphedema may include complaints of pain or “fullness” in an arm or a leg. This may happen before the leg or arm becomes bigger. As it progresses, the arm or leg will be visibly bigger. At first, the arm or leg may become smaller on its own. With time, the lymphatic system may become "tired" and will not be able to return the extra fluid back into the venous system. This is when treatment is necessary.
In addition, after the lymphatic system backs up several times, the material will become hard in the tissue (fibrosis). The fibrosis cannot leave the tissue without help. The long-term effects of the lymphedema include damage to the lymphatic system as well as less oxygen and nutrient supplies to the cells. This will damage the cells in the arm or leg. In addition, the lymphatic system may not be able to heal wounds or fight off infections as well when there is a back up of fluid and material in the tissues. If the lymphedema is left untreated, the arm or leg can lose function, motion, and strength, and can become extremely painful. In many cases, the arm or leg will slowly get bigger over time. The movement of the arm and leg will become more difficult and can cause back or neck pain from the increased weight. Furthermore, it will become more difficult to manage at work and at home. In a few cases, this change can be rapid with frequent and sever disabling infections.
- Reroute lymph fluid through remaining lymph vessels so it will drain in other lymph nodes.
- Decrease the size of the arm, leg and trunk.
- Decrease or remove hard (fibrotic) tissue.
- Stop the fluid from building up in the arm or leg.
- Prevent or decrease the number of infections in the arm or leg.
- Teach the skills to be in control and manage your lymphedema.
Depending on the severity of the lymphedema, the recommended treatment plan should be determined using an approach based on the Complex Decongestive Therapy (CDT) methods which consist of:
- Manual lymphatic drainage
- Proper skin care & diet
- Compression garments (sleeves, stockings, devices such as Reid Sleeve, CircAid, Tribute, as well as other alternative approaches)
- Remedial exercises
- Self-manual lymphatic drainage & bandaging, if instruction is available
- Continue to follow prophylactic methods at all times
To make an appointment please call 336-716-8400.
A written referral from your physician is required.
Anne Fleischer MPH, OT/L CLT-LANA is board certified lymphedema therapist through the Lymphology Association of North America.
National Lymphedema Network: www.lymphnet.org