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What is Lymphedema and How Can Physical Therapy Help?

By Jessica Lane, PT, DPT, CLT - August 26, 2020

Lymphedema is unfortunately a disease that is often under recognized and therefore goes untreated. If left untreated, people are at increased risk for other complications and long-term disability.  

What is Lymphedema?  

    Lymphedema is chronic swelling that is caused by the build-up of fluid that occurs when the lymphatic system is either faulty or damaged. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.*

What causes Lymphedema? 

   A lymphatic system can be abnormal at birth. When the system can no longer cope with the demand of lymphatic fluid, it can lead to what we call Primary Lymphedema.  

  Alternatively, someone can develop Secondary Lymphedema when the lymphatic system has been damaged from some sort of external source. This can be caused by cancer and its related treatments, trauma, surgery, obesity or chronic venous insufficiency.  

What are some of the signs and symptoms of Lymphedema?  

   Symptoms of Lymphedema include a feeling of fullness, tightness or heaviness in the affected arm or leg, achiness or discomfort in the affected arm or leg, poor fitting of clothing or shoes, indentations or pitting in the skin, and changes of the skin such as thickening of the skin.  

Is Lymphedema treatable?  

   Once you have been diagnosed with Lymphedema, it is a lifelong condition that will require continued management. Seeking the help of a physical therapist with provide you the tools necessary to continue self-management.  

How can physical therapy help?  

   Lymphedema treatment is known as complete decongestive therapy or CDT.  This would consist of manual massage to help stimulate the lymphatic vessels to improve flow of lymphatic fluid, compression therapy to decrease swelling, exercise, skin care and instructions in self-care.  

If you are dealing with uncontrollable swelling in an arm or leg, it is time to reach out to a physical therapist! It is best to find a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). We can help you manage and control your swelling so you can return to all the activities you love to do!