Lymphedema is a condition that has received a lot of attention in recent years. It can result when the lymph nodes are removed or damaged due to cancer treatment. Cancer patients aren’t the only ones who can have lymphedema, which causes swelling in the arms or legs. Individuals suffering from obesity or vascular issues can also experience it. While lymphedema has no cure, it can be managed effectively with physical therapy.
The lymphatic system is a network of organs, nodes and vessels that make and produce fluids necessary to the body’s function. When the lymph nodes are compromised, they fail to remove proteins from the lymphatic fluid, causing an accumulation of fluid and swelling in the limbs. It’s most often an asymmetrical condition, meaning it will only affect one arm or one leg. If the arms or the legs are both affected, one is usually worse than the other.
Many cancer patients will come to us immediately when their lymph nodes have been removed or radiated. But many other patients have suffered from lymphedema for years before they discover exactly what it is and that physical therapy can help.
We use three main techniques for addressing lymphedema: manual lymphatic drainage, multi-layer bandaging and circulation exercises. The duration of therapy will depend on the severity of the case.
- Manual lymphatic drainage is an incredibly effective technique for pushing fluid out of the areas where it has built up toward the lymph nodes and the center of the body. A therapist should follow specific pathways, or “watersheds,” natural highways that help the fluid reach the lymph nodes and organs where it will be processed and ultimately flushed out of the body as urine.
- Once manual lymphatic drainage has been performed, multi-layer bandaging helps keep the fluid from returning. Wrapping a leg or arm with bandaging has a compressive effect that helps restrict fluid build-up.
- Circulation exercises are also an important part of lymphedema management. These are simple movements performed in a sequence that help pump fluid through the lymphatic pathways.
A good therapy program also teaches patients and caregivers to conduct these techniques at home. Once progress is made and independence is gained in therapy, a patient will continue to manage his or her condition, returning to therapy for extra support when the need arises.