Lymphedema: Explained

Your lymphatic system circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body to collect bacteria, viruses, and waste products. It carries these harmful substances and fluids through your lymph vessels, leading to your lymph nodes. Lymphocytes then filter our the wastes and flush them from your body. When your lymph vessels are unable to drain the lymph fluid efficiently, lymphedema occurs.

Lymphedema refers to swelling that can happen anywhere in your body, including your chest, head, and genitals, but it typically occurs in one of your arms or legs. Sometimes both arms or both legs swell. It may be so minor that you barely notice, or so severe that it is hard to move that part of your body. You may also be achy or have hardened skin in the affected area.

Symptoms

Symptoms that occur in your affected arm or leg include:

  • Swelling in part or all of your leg, including fingers or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Aching or discomfort
  • Recurring infections
  • Hardening or thickening of the skin (fibrosis)

Types & Causes

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema is caused by another condition or disease that damages your lymph vessels or nodes. Secondary lymphedema may be caused by an infection in your lymph nodes, parasites, cancer or radiation treatment for cancer, surgery, lymph node removal, or injury. Primary lymphedema is much less common, but is a genetic problem that occurs because your lymph nodes or vessels are not adequately developed or are missing. Your risk of developing lymphedema may occur due to old age, excess weight or obesity, or rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.

Prevention

To reduce your risk of lymphedema, try to protect your arm or leg from harm such as injury, cuts, scrapes, and burns. Avoid medical procedures such as blood draws and vaccinations in your affected limb, if possible. Avoid applying ice or heat to your affected limb and protect it from extreme cold. Elevate your affected limb above the level of your heart. Avoid tight clothing that could constrict your affected limb and always keep the limb clean.

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

At Peak Physical Therapy, our lymphedema management program focuses on reducing swelling and improving mobility. Treatment will be performed by a certified lymphedema therapist who has received extensive training in this area. 

Treatment, known as Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT), includes...

  • Manual lymph drainage (MLD), a gentle form of massage that assists with the drainage of lymphatic fluid
  • Compression wrapping with specialized bandages to reduce swelling
  • Exercise to improve fitness without aggravating the affected area
  • Education in self-care practices for long-term management of this condition
  • Education on proper compression garments/pumps

Peak Physical Therapy

At Peak Physical Therapy & Sports Performance, our four convenient locations give you greater access to the South Shore's best physical therapy services. The locations include Norwell, MA, Scituate, MA, Quincy, MA, and Hanover, MA. Our state-of-the-art facilities include access to the best treatments and equipment to ensure a fast recovery. We've even expanded our facilities to include access to therapy pools as well as indoor sports fields. If you're unsure whether physical therapy can help you, we offer a no-obligation FREE injury screening. Click here for more information.

 

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LOCATIONS:

Norwell, MA
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Hanover, MA
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