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Today's Medicine

What You May Not Know about Lymphedema

A pretty slick process

Hidden inside your body is a very complex system that helps keep your body’s health in check. Your lymphatic system consists of lymph nodes, organs and a network of vessels similar to your circulatory system. But instead of blood, the lymphatic system transports a fluid called “lymph” from your tissues into your blood system.

You may not have heard of lymph, but it’s likely you’ve seen it. Ever gotten a scrape which oozes clear fluid? That’s lymph. It moves through the body’s tissues “cleaning up,” collecting cell waste, toxins, germs and even cancer cells. The fluid is drawn into the vessels and directed towards lymph nodes. These nodes act as filters, removing all the “garbage” before the fluid is dumped back into the blood system. Fun fact: There are anywhere from 600 to 900 lymph nodes in your body working to keep you healthy!

As with most of our body’s systems, it works so well we don’t give it a thought. But when it doesn’t work, that’s when we start to see some big problems pretty quickly.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in our tissues. It happens when the lymphatic system is either faulty or damaged.

There are a few things which can cause that damage, but in our work in Lymphedema Therapy at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center, the most common is surgical removal or radiation of lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. The body can’t find a new route to move lymph around the damage, causing the fluid to build up and the area to swell – sometimes quite dramatically. 

An estimated two out of every five breast cancer patients will develop lymphedema within five years of treatment. Lymphedema resulting from prostate cancer, head and neck cancers and melanoma is also on the rise. In fact, it can result from the treatment of any cancer where lymph nodes have been removed or radiated.

Treatments reduce swelling

There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are effective ways we can treat it. Without it, patients are at increased risk for complications and disability.

Here at Methodist, specially trained and certified physical and occupational therapists use manual lymph drainage, a technique to help move the fluid from the swollen tissues into the lymphatic system using “detours” around the damaged areas. We are basically encouraging it to take another route.

Compression is an equally important part of the treatment process. Special compression bandages are used to help reduce swelling, and compression garments, such as sleeves and stockings, are used to keep the swelling from returning.

Treatments may also include:

  • Exercise program
  • Precautions and skin care to prevent infection
  • Patient education
  • Continued follow-up and support

The earlier, the better

When it comes to lymphatic swelling, the earlier we can treat the problem, the better off you’ll be. Once the swelling stays in one spot for too long, the proteins present in the fluid can form a network and cause the swelling to become firm. Once this stage is reached, it becomes much more difficult to treat and may become irreversible. 

If your doctor says you may be at risk for developing lymphedema, watch for signs of swelling. Know the risks and when to ask for help. When choosing a therapist, be sure they are certified in the appropriate training. 

For questions about Lymphedema Therapy at Methodist, call 402-354-4670.

About the Author

Wendy Buchholz, OTR/L, CLT-LANA, is an Occupational Therapist/LANA Certified Lymphedema Therapist

She works with patients every day at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center.

See more articles from Wendy Buchholz, OTR/L, CLT-LANA
Photo of Wendy Buchholz, OTR/L, CLT-LANA