What is Lymphedema and How Can it be Managed?

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a highly under-diagnosed condition that affects the lymphatic vessels, which are responsible for transporting protein-rich lymph fluid back into the circulatory system. When lymph vessels are unable to transport this fluid properly, a build-up occurs, resulting in swelling and thickening of the skin.

Who is at risk?

If you have had a mastectomy, lumpectomy, radiation treatment, lymph node removal, surgeries, infections, or trauma to your limbs, you may be at risk for developing secondary lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is genetic, resulting from lymph nodes or vessels that either aren't adequately developed or are missing altogether.

How can I tell if I have lymphedema?

Indentations that do not immediately disappear after pressing down on your skin with your hand or fingers are a common indicator of lymphedema. A medical professional will evaluate and may diagnosis you by ordering an image test. Lymphedema is usually found in the legs and arms; however, it can affect any region of the body. Many people with lymphedema are labeled over-weight, yet lymphedema has nothing to do with fat storage.

How is Lymphedema managed?

There is no cure for lymphedema but you can maintain and active and healthy life with therapy from a certified lymphedema therapist or trained medical professional. Management includes two phases.

First phase: Decongestive Therapy (swelling reduction)

  • Massage: Manual lymph drainage is a special technique that may encourage the flow of lymph fluid out of the affected area of your body.
  • Pneumatic Compression: A sleeve worn over your affected arm or leg connects to a pump that intermittently inflates the sleeve, putting pressure on your limb to reduce swelling.
  • Exercises: Moving your affected limb through light exercise may promote lymph fluid drainage. Learn more on our Steps to Better Health blog post about exercise and lymphedema.
  • Inelastic Compression Bandaging or Wraps: Inelastic compression garments offer little stretch and are designed to provide a comfortable high working pressure when you’re active and low working pressure when you’re resting on the swollen area. This helps with fluid drainage and minimizes swelling.
  • Lymphedema Aids: Lymphedema compression aids—including leg and arm liners worn under bandages, pads and kinesiology tape—help to increase drainage flow.

Second phase: Maintenance

  • Elastic Compression Garments: For best results, start wearing an elastic compression garment as soon as possible after completing the decongestive phase of treatment. The compression garment helps to manage re-accumulation of fluid by providing continuous external pressure to your tissue. Elastic compression has static pressure while you’re active and resting. This means the amount of pressure stays the same when either standing or sitting.
  • Diet: Health professionals advise people with lymphedema to eat an anti-inflammatory healthy diet that includes whole grains, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and fish to promote optimal weight. This diet helps boost the body's immune system, which will help reduce and manage infections. Visit Juzo’s Steps to Better Health blog to learn more about lymphedema and a healthy diet.

If you’re concerned that you may have lymphedema, consult a trained MLD therapist or your primary care provider for a proper evaluation.