The lymphactic system is made up of lymph nodes and lymph vessels that are connected throughout the body. When this system is working properly, it removes bacteria, excess fluid, and other waste products from the body. If the lymphatic system becomes damaged these substances can build up and cause swelling. This is called lymphedema. Typically, swelling of this nature begins slowly and becomes progressively worse over time. In the later stages of lymphedema, even the skin changes, becoming thicker and firmer, and the body's wound healing ability is significantly limited. Although lymphedema is a chronic and progressive disease, with appropriate treatment and self-care, it can be well managed.
There are two forms of lymphedema -- primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by a poorly formed lymphatic system. Swelling may be present at birth, or may develop later, often during puberty or pregnancy. Primary lymphedema most commonly affects the legs, but may occur in other parts of the body.
Secondary lymphedema occurs as a result of damage to an otherwise normal lymphatic system. Surgical procedures such as mastectomies or lumpectomies, surgery to remove lymph nodes, and radiation therapy are the most common causes of such damage. However, trauma and infection may also injure the lymphatic system. Lymphedema may also occur in combination with other diseases. Chronic venous insufficiency, for example, can lead to a form of lymphedema.
Diagnosis of lymphedema can usually be made by a simple physical examination. In certain special circumstances, advanced imaging technology may be necessary. Early diagnosis is important for lymphedema, as early treatment may help prevent complications such as skin breakdown and the development of wounds. If you think that you may be affected by lymphedema, you should consult with your physician.
The current standard of treatment for lymphedema is called Complete Decongestive Therapy. The goal of treatment is to reduce swelling and improve the movement of lymphatic fluid. This is accomplished through a technique called manual lymphatic drainage; a hands-on treatment, performed by a trained physical or occupational therapist, that uses applied pressure to encourage the proper flow of lymphatic fluid. Compression is also applied to assist in fluid reduction. Initially, this is done with special bandages. Eventually, patients are fitted with customized compression garments. In addition to these treatments, patients are educated in the importance of skin care. Mild exercises are also prescribed as these enhance the pumping action of muscles and joints and improve the overall success of treatment. Patients and their families are usually very involved in their own treatment. This is necessary as lymphedema is a chronic disease and self-management is critical to long-term treatment success.
Lakeland Rehabilitation Services offers Complete Decongestive Therapy for patients suffering from lymphedema in both St. Joseph and Niles. Additionly, Homecare services are available. Our therapists have met the standards set by the National Lymphedema Network and are designated as Lymphedema Specialists. For more information, or to schedule an appointment call (269) 428-2799 (St. Joseph) or (269) 687-0945 (Niles).