Swelling Got You Down? Have You Tried Lymphedema Therapy?

Swelling Got You Down? Have You Tried Lymphedema Therapy?

If you’ve ever noticed your hand is swollen, or your ankle looks bigger than usual, your first thought tends to be “How did I hurt myself?” When people hear “lymphedema”, most people think about breast cancer. What many don’t realize is lymphedema is more common within other underlying health conditions, such as obesity, venous insufficiency, and diabetes.  How do you know whether you have swelling from an injury or swelling from lymphedema? We’re going to dive into the lymphatic system, what signs to look for, and how it differs from general edema.

First off, what is your lymphatic system?

Your lymphatic system plays an important role in your body’s circulation and immune function. Within your body, your lymph vessels travel the same areas of your arteries and veins. The lymph system works to collect, filter, and give your body back the fluid and nutrients your body can use. The rest of the waste is taken to the thoracic duct where your body can dispose of it through urination. Your lymph fluid consists of dead cells, unwanted proteins, fats, and other unnecessary cells that your body can’t use.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a progressive disease, but when properly treated is able to be managed. Somewhere within the lymph system there is a disruption that causes an accumulation of lymph fluid. This progression can occur over the course of a couple weeks to a few years. There are different stages to help categorize the severity of lymphedema.

What can cause lymphedema?

Any type of injury, trauma, or dysfunction of the lymphatic system can result in increased swelling. In the US, the most common cause is surgery or radiation following cancer. Obesity and long standing venous problems can also result in lymphedema. Although not as common, lymphedema can be hereditary, as the dysfunction of the system is already there, but swelling does not always manifest.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

The #1 symptom is swelling in the arms or legs. While the trunk and genitals can be involved, these areas are not as common. Now I know you’re wondering “how do I know if you have just general swelling or if it’s lymphedema?” There are a few key symptoms that go along with lymphedema that are not common with general swelling. So let’s break that down.

Progressive swelling overtime
Infections and redness
Firm/dense swelling
Skin dryness or hardening
Body parts will feel heavy and uncomfortable
Swelling occurring after an injury
Improve with time and recovery

When comparing lymphedema to general edema, the biggest factor is the protein in lymphatic fluid. Infection can be a risk with lymphedema due to the high amounts of protein. With a local infection, if not treated in a timely manner, the infection can feed off the protein. The protein also causes the swelling to be more dense and the area is firmer than general edema.

How can lymphedema be treated?

What many don’t realize, lymphedema can be treated and managed with Complete Decongestive Therapy performed by a Certified Lymph Therapist. Treatment consists of skin care, manual lymph drainage, exercise and compression. Every treatment plan is designed for the individual person, as every lymph system is unique to that person.

So next time you notice that you, your friend, or family member have some swelling that hasn’t seemed to improve, educate them on lymphedema. Talk to a doctor about lymphedema and what treatment can be done for you!

Bond, M., MS, PT, CLT, CIDN. (n.d.). Lymphedema I: Comprehensive Lymphedema and Venous Edema and Management. Lecture.

Chikly, B. (2004). Silent waves: Theory and practice of lymph drainage therapy: An osteopathic lymphatic technique. Scottsdale, AZ: I.H.H. Pub.