A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What’s the lowdown on lymphedema?

woman getting a lymph drainage massage

Lymphedema doesn’t go away and if untreated, can lead to infections and increased swelling. Early diagnosis and training can help you manage it.

Chronic swelling, caused by an abnormal build-up of fluid, is called lymphedema and it has several causes.

Primary lymphedema is caused by a genetic defect or impairment in the lymphatic system.

Secondary lymphedema, the most common form, is caused by damage from surgical removal of lymph nodes, radiation during cancer treatment to the lymph node area or trauma to the lymphatic system.

When working correctly, your lymphatic system does a great job of keeping fluids, naturally produced in body tissues, evenly dispersed and helps break down and continually flushes byproducts and infectious agents from the body.

“Lymphedema most often affects arms or legs but can occur in the trunk, neck or face,” said Vivian Gamble, a Marshfield Clinic occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist. “When lymphedema occurs in the arms, neck or head, usually it’s from lymph node damage or removal. Problems with circulation can trigger lymphedema in the legs.”

Besides swelling, symptoms may include pain, tightness or heaviness.

“Signals include clothing that doesn’t fit right and swelling that doesn’t go away when elevating arms or legs,” Gamble said. “The swollen area also will not feel soft and pliable like a water balloon but more like a sandbag with a thicker feeling. Swelling may not be on both limbs at the same time.”

Early diagnosis helps manage symptoms

Lymphedema doesn’t go away and if untreated, can lead to infections and increased swelling.

“Once you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema, managing it is key,” she said. “The sooner you’re diagnosed and trained to manage it, the better.”

You can learn to recognize symptoms early and manage them using specific massage techniques, exercise and compression.

“Using these therapeutic methods, your body can make new pathways and move fluid more efficiently,” Gamble said.

Minimize risk of flare-ups

To avoid aggravating lymphedema symptoms, Gamble advises that you:

  • Keep the affected limb clean and moisturized with non-perfumed lotion.
  • Trim nails carefully, avoiding cutting skin or cuticles.
  • Avoid scratches and trauma such as injections, animal scratches or burns.
  • Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Avoid excessive heat on the limb, like hot packs or sauna heat.
  • Wear appropriate protection such as gloves for gardening or outdoor work.

“I try to empower my patients with information and techniques to help manage their condition,” Gamble said. “It’s best to act at the first sign of symptoms and notify your provider, who can then refer you to a therapist trained in lymphedema management.”

If you’re concerned about your risk for lymphedema, talk with your doctor.

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