Sacred Heart Rehabilitation is proud to have a certified lymphedema specialist at our Davis Highway location in Pensacola who has advanced training and expertise in dealing with this condition.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is swelling caused by the buildup of too much lymph fluid in the tissues. It usually affects the arms or legs, but can occur in other parts of the body as well. It is caused by the interruption of normal lymphatic flow often due to surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. There are two types of lymphedema – primary and secondary.
Primary lymphedema, which is not common, can be present at birth, occur at puberty or in adulthood, all from unknown causes or may be associated with vascular anomalies.
Secondary lymphedema, which is much more common, can result from surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. It is usually related to cancer treatment, particularly surgeries in which the lymph nodes are removed. Removing lymph nodes and vessels changes the flow of the lymph fluid, making circulation more difficult. If not enough fluid can be removed from an area, the excess builds up and causes swelling. Radiation treatment can affect the flow of fluid in the same way, thus increasing the risk of secondary lymphedema.
Lymphedema can develop after surgery or radiation for any kind of cancer, but most often develops with treatment of breast cancer, prostate cancer, pelvic area cancers, lymphoma or melanoma. Lymphedema can appear weeks, months or even years after the initial surgery, and it may also occur following injury or infection.
If lymphedema occurs after breast cancer treatment, it usually affects the breast area, underarm, or arm on the side of surgery. After cancer treatment to the abdomen, lymphedema can cause swelling of the abdomen, genitals or one or both legs.
Signs & Symptoms of Lymphedema
Lymphedema can be very uncomfortable. The fluid buildup and swelling can cause the area to become hot, and the skin can become hard and stiff. There are several signs that could indicate the onset of lymphedema.
The signs or symptoms of lymphedema may include:
- A feeling of fullness or heaviness in the arm or leg
- A feeling of tightness in the skin of an arm or leg
- Decreased movement or flexibility in the hand, wrist or ankle
- Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area
- Tight fitting of a ring, watch or bracelet though you haven't gained weight
If any of these symptoms lasts more than a week or two, or you notice persistent swelling, you may want to talk to your doctor, especially if you have had lymph nodes removed or had radiation treatment.
Treatments for Lymphedema
There are treatments for lymphedema, which can help reduce the swelling and prevent it from worsening. The treatment will depend on the cause. If lymphedema develops because of infection, the first course of treatment may be antibiotics, which can reduce the swelling and redness.
At Sacred Heart, our certified lymphedema specialist will evaluate you and develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your unique needs.
Your treatment plan may include:
- Education on Proper Skin Care: Your therapist will teach you proper skin care, which may include how to avoid injuries and infections, how to practice good hygiene, and proper moisturizing techniques.
- Lymphedema Massage: Our therapist utilizes two basic types of massage to treat lymphedema. Manual lymph draining is a precise and gentle form of massage that helps mobilize the fluid and direct it to other pathways. Soft tissue mobilization is a type of massage used to release scar tissue and other tightness that might be contributing to the swelling. Sometimes massage is taught to patients or family members to carry out at home.
- Exercise: Your therapist may also teach you stretching exercises to loosen up your tissues in the affected region or specialized exercises to help move the fluid out.
- Bandaging: This is a precise technique which uses cotton low-stretch bandages to apply constant pressure on the limb. Bandaging is usually done in combination with other methods.
- Compression Garments: Your therapist and/or physician may prescribe compression garments, which are elastic fabric garments similar to a girdle or support stocking. These garments apply pressure to the arm or leg to help move fluid out and keep new fluid from collecting.
- Medications: In addition to physical therapy, your physician may also prescribe antibiotics or other medications as part of your treatment plan.
Lymphedema Prevention & Control
Lymphedema is a very serious condition. Besides being uncomfortable and sometimes painful, if left untreated it can cause debilitating weakness in the limbs, interfere with the healing of wounds and lead to infection. There is no cure for lymphedema and once it develops, it can be a long-term condition requiring daily treatment.
Although there is no scientific evidence that people can prevent lymphedema, most experts recommend some basic guidelines, which may lower the risk of developing lymphedema or delay its onset.
The most important thing is to try to avoid any infections, burns, or injuries to the affected area. The body responds to these by making extra lymph fluid, which can lead to lymphedema.
Other tips include:
- Keep the area/limb clean and moisturized.
- Avoid cuts, scratches, burns, hangnails and insect bites. Treat any of these by washing, using an antibacterial cream and clean bandage.
- Use an electric shaver, which is less likely to cut the skin.
- Use insect repellent and sunscreen when outdoors.
- Wear protective gloves when working in the garden or kitchen.
- Exercise regularly, but don't fatigue the affected limb.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing and jewelry.
- Avoid heavy lifting and pulling.
- If your arm is affected, avoid using shoulder straps on briefcases or purses and make sure you use your unaffected arm when you have blood drawn, IVs placed, or when you receive shots.
- If your leg is affected, wear well-fitting closed shoes at all times (don't go barefoot.) You should also avoid socks or stockings with tight elastic bands.
- Report any redness, swelling, increased heat or tightness to your doctor.
8331 North Davis Highway
Pensacola, FL 32514