What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid, protein, fat, and cell fragments in the tissue that develops because of a malfunction in the lymphatic system. Lymphedema is a chronic and progressive condition. As it advances, lymphedema may be accompanied by infection, skin changes and wounds.
Approximately 2.5 million people in the United States develop lymphedema with swelling that occurs in the legs, arms, face, trunk or genitalia.
Types of Lymphedema
- Primary Lymphedema - develops without obvious cause and may be present at birth due to improper development of the lymphatic system.
- Secondary Lymphedema - develops after surgery, lymph node removal, radiation, chemotherapy, infection or trauma to the lymphatic system.
Signs and Symptoms
Contact your doctor or nurse when symptoms first appear, as early diagnosis and treatment prevent complications. Some signs and symptoms of lymphedema may include:
- A full or heavy feeling
- Texture changes in the skin
- Aching or discomfort
- Less movement or flexibility in nearby joints such as your shoulder, hand and wrist
- Trouble fitting into jewelry and / or clothes in one area such as the sleeve of your jacket, a pant leg or sock
In order to decrease the risk of developing or the worsening of existing lymphedema symptoms, the following precautions should be taken:
- Avoid extreme hot and cold temperatures
- Avoid hot baths and showers
- Avoid saunas and hot tubs
- Avoid insect bites
- Avoid skin punctures, needle punctures, cuts and acupuncture to the swollen limb
- Avoid pet scratches
- Avoid blood pressure cuffs on the affected limb
- Avoid wearing tight clothes, rings or watches on the affected limb
- Avoid deep massage or swedish massage
A referral from your physician is needed to receive an evaluation and treatment for lymphedema by one of our certified lymphedema therapists. Once the referral is received you will be scheduled for an evaluation. Your therapist will then develop an individualized, evidence based treatment plan and will manage your treatment. Our complete rehabilitation team consists of expert occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, social workers, and neuropsychologists in case there are other impairments that warrant treatment besides lymphedema.
Phase One: Intense Treatment Phase
An evaluation consists of a one-hour session with subsequent treatment sessions of 1-1.5 hours in duration. You will receive treatment four to five days per week for an average of 4-6 weeks or until maximum volume reduction is achieved. Complete Decongestive Therapy incorporates:
- Manual lymphatic drainage
- Skin care
- Compression bandaging
- Therapeutic exercises
- Self-care training
- Patient and family education for gaining independence in managing lymphedema
Phase Two: Self-Maintenance Phase
Once maximum volume reduction is achieved, you will be measured for compression garments which you will wear during the day. Additionally, you will use bandages at night or alternative nightwear compression. You will continue to perform exercises, skin/nail care, self-manual lymphatic drainage as well as attend follow-up visits with your certified lymphedema therapist as needed.
Learn more about treatment of lymphedema at Memorial Hermann.