Following treatment for breast, cervical, uterine, prostate or other cancers, a patient may experience lymphedema, a condition in which excess fluid collects in tissue and causes swelling.
Treatment can help most people with lymphedema. The earlier you seek treatment, the more effective your treatment will be. Community Memorial Hospital's Lymphedema Program helps you learn to manage your symptoms and continue your daily activities.
The Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is a series of one-way channels that transport lymph fluid from the body's tissues to the blood system. The lymph system helps filter unwanted materials out of the blood, carries large protein molecules, stimulates the body's immune system and prevents swelling.
Lymphedema Causes and Symptoms
Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the body's tissues instead of returning to the circulatory system. This causes abnormal swelling in affected areas of the body.
Protein molecules accumulate in the body's tissues, causing thick, hard tissue and indentations in the skin when pressed. This protein build-up draws more water into the tissues, causing more swelling and an ideal environment for infection. This leads to a heavy limb that may become painful, immobile or easily injured.
Sometimes lymphedema is caused by abnormal lymphatic system development. Lymphedema may also develop as a result of surgery, radiation treatment, trauma or repeated infections that alter the lymph system. It may develop immediately after surgery or not until many years later.
Swelling is the most common sign of lymphedema, which may be difficult to detect early. Other signs to look for include:
- Tightness and stiffness
- Increased limb size (arm or leg)
- Swelling in your trunk not related to over-eating or medications
- Feelings of heaviness, aching, pain, puffiness, "bursting," numbness or tingling, hardness or firmness
- Limb temperature changes (warmer or cooler)
- Texture or color changes of the skin (whiter, redder, duller or shinier)
- Dry, scaly or cracked skin on your affected side
- Pitting of skin when pressed; marks left on the skin for more than five minutes after removing a bra, jewelry, clothing, etc.
- Inability to pick up a fold of skin on your affected side
- Fluid leaking through your skin
Community Memorial Hospital has qualified physical and occupational therapists who perform a detailed evaluation and design an individual program to fit your needs, including instruction in self management. The program includes:
- Exercises to build strength and improve range of motion
- Skin care to prevent infections
- Scar tissue management
- Recommendations for compression garment fitting
- Education about the lymph system, injury prevention, home exercise, self-massage and self-bandaging
- Lymph tissue massage to stimulate lymph flow and redirect fluid to functioning nodes
- Compression pumps and compression garments
- Suggestions for ways to modify activities and use assistive devices, if needed
- Heat, ultrasound and kinesio tape to reduce restriction from a scar
Treatment varies, but typically occurs two to three times a week for three to four weeks.