Lymphedema

Lymphedema

Lymphedema is swelling generally in the arms or legs due to a blockage in your lymphatic system. The lymphatic system collects lymph (excess fluid, proteins, and other substances) from the body tissues and carries them back to the bloodstream. Lymphedema occurs when the normal drainage of fluid is disrupted by a blockage or a cut in the lymph nodes in the groin area or the armpit. Lymphedema can be a hereditary condition, but it’s most commonly the result of blockages caused by infection, cancer, and scar tissue from radiation therapy or the surgical removal of lymph nodes.

You’re at greater risk for lymphedema if you:

  • Had surgical removal of lymph nodes in the underarm, groin, or pelvic region
  • Received radiation therapy to the underarm, groin, pelvic region, or neck
  • Have scar tissue in the lymphatic ducts, veins, or under the collarbones caused by surgery or radiation therapy
  • Have cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, chest, underarm, pelvis, or abdomen
  • Have tumors in the pelvis, abdomen, or chest that involve or put pressure on the lymphatic vessels and/or the large lymphatic duct thereby blocking lymph drainage
  • Have inflammation of the arm or leg after surgery
  • Are older
  • Have an inadequate diet or are overweight, as these conditions may delay recovery from surgery and radiation therapy and may increase the risk for lymphedema

Screen Shot 2018 08 29 at 6.47.43 PM Lymphedema


With lymphedema, you may have

  • Swelling in your arms, legs, shoulders, hands, fingers, or chest
  • Skin that feels tighter, harder, or thicker than normal in the affected area
  • Aching or a feeling of heaviness in your arm or leg
  • Weakness in your arm or leg
  • Inability to move certain joints, such as your wrist or ankle, as freely as usual
  • “Pitting” in the tissues of your limb (an indentation that is made by pressing a finger on the skin that takes time to “fill in” after the pressure is removed)
  • Clothing, rings, bracelets, or shoes that fit tighter than before
  • Repeated infections in your arm or leg
  • Joint pain
  • Difficulty doing your daily activities

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will review your medical history and medications and perform a thorough physical examination that includes the following information:

  • Your actual weight compared with your ideal weight
  • Measurements of your arms and legs
  • How well you’re able to do activities of daily living
  • History of edema, previous radiation therapy, or surgery
  • The time between surgery and when you first noticed the swelling
  • Other conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease, or phlebitis (inflammation of the veins)

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Your physical therapist will serve as an important member of your health care team and will work closely with you to design a treatment program to help control the swelling and meet your goals for returning to your activities.

In the early stages of lymphedema, when the swelling is mild, it can often be managed by compression garments, exercise, and elevation of the affected limb to encourage lymph flow. For more severe swelling, the physical therapist may use a treatment called “complete decongestive therapy.” The initial step often includes manual lymphatic drainage, which feels like a light form of massage and helps improve the flow of lymph from your arm or leg. This is followed by compression bandaging that helps to reduce the swelling. Your therapist will carefully monitor the size of the limb throughout your treatment sessions.

Once the limb has decreased to the desired size, your physical therapist will help you begin to take over your own care by:

  • Developing a safe and sensible exercise program that will increase your physical fitness without unnecessarily straining your affected arm or leg
  • Updating your compression garments to ensure proper fitting, working with you to find the type of garment that best meets your needs
  • Educating you about proper diet to decrease fluid buildup in your tissues and skin care to reduce the risk of infection

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

Although all physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a variety of conditions, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating lymphedema
  • A physical therapist who has completed special training in lymphedema management and has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your injury

At Advent Physical Therapy, we have physical therapists specially trained to help you manage your pain and swelling from lymphedema.  Want to know how physical therapy can improve your level of comfort and ability to participate in the activities you enjoy? Contact Us Today at Grand Rapids, Hastings, Jenison, Grandville, Byron Center Kentwood & Walker, MI Centers to schedule your consultation and start down the road to a better quality of life today.

I have been to many physical therapy offices and this one is the absolute best, hands down! Not only does the staff work on resolving the immediate problem but they also recommend ways to improve overall body functioning to prevent further injuries in the future. I won’t go anywhere else.

Tiffany B