What is Lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is a chronic disorder characterized by swelling tissue (usually a lump) with fluid rich in proteins. It can either be a developmental problem (meaning there is no cause per se) or secondary and associated with some sort of precipitating event. These secondary causes include:
● Surgical causes:
○ Sometimes removal of lymph nodes – such as in breast cancer surgery – can result in lymphoma
● Radiation treatment for certain cancers can scar the nodes and vessels.
● Cancer. Certain types of cancer can invade the lymphatic vessels and this can result in lymphoedema
● Infection often invades the lymph nodes and causes them to swell.
If you have lymphoedema you might suffer from a number of symptoms including:
● Swelling of a limb. This can occur in part of the leg or arm or the entire limb.
● The affected limb will typically cause heaviness and tightness
● The limb will have restricted movement
● There may be aching or discomfort
● There may be recurrent infections of the surrounding skin (cellulitis)
● There might be a hardening of the skin.
What is decongestive lymphatic therapy?
A decongestive lymphatic drainage is a specialized form of physical therapy offered at a number of specialist centers across the country. The decongestive lymphatic therapy consists of four distinct components:
● Compression bandages are applied to complement the exercises in the therapy to move fluid out of the limb.
● Skincare is undertaken to reduce the chances of skin breakdown (which is a big infection risk in these patients)
● Exercises will be undertaken with a physiotherapist to improve the lymph drainage in the affected limb
● The therapist will also undertake specialist massage techniques known as manual lymphatic drainage that stimulated the flow of fluid through the system and reduces the swelling.
The treatment is intensive and can be every day for a number of weeks. After this initial phase patients typically move to the maintenance phase whereby they maintain good lymph flow with exercise and home self-massage techniques.
Does decongestive lymphatic therapy work?
There is a growing body of literature that suggests decongestive lymphatic therapy is a safe and effective treatment for patients with lymphedema that resulted following breast cancer surgery (eg a mastectomy with axillary clearance). A study conducted at the University of Texas looked to see whether the therapy worked on this patient group even if they had had the therapy before. They found that in both patients who had had the therapy before and naive patients, there was a statistically significant reduction in the mean size of the limb. This is great news for sufferers!
If you our somebody you know is suffering from lymphoedema, either following a surgical procedure or for development reasons – contact a specialist physiotherapy center who and provide one to one support and a personalized treatment plan to help reduce the swelling and get you back on your feet.