What is Lymphedema? What causes Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a chronic (Long-term) condition in which excess fluid (lymph) collects in tissues causing edema (swelling). Lymphedema can be very debilitating. Lymphedema is edema due to lymphatic fluid, a blockage of the lymphatic system.
Lymphedema commonly affects one of the arms or legs, in some cases both arms or legs. Some patients may experience swelling in the head, genitals and chest. It is often a consequence of surgically removing lymph nodes in the arm pit (axilla) or groin, or their damage caused by radiography. The normal drainage of the lymph is faulty. Lymphedema is incurable. However, with diligent care it can be controlled.
What is the Lymphatic System?
The Lymphatic System consists of the tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight disease and infection. They include the bone marrow, thymus, lymph nodes and spleen, as well as the channels that carry lymph. There is a series of vessels and glands Lymph nodes) that comprise the lymph system. They are spread throughout the body, in a similar way to blood vessels. A disruption of the lymph system can eventually undermine its ability to drain fluid properly, resulting in excess fluid in parts of the body. With that comes a greater risk of infection. There are two main types of lymphedema: Primary Lymphedema – Often called congenital lymphedema. The lymphedema is evident at birth or shortly after puperty. It is caused by congenital malformation (faulty genes) of the lymph system. This type is rare; effecting approximately 1 in every 10.000 people.
Secondary Lymphedema – the lymphedema occurs as a result of something else, such as infection, injury, trauma or cancer which affects the lymphatic system. Lymphedema may be a side effect of cancer treatment, such as radiotherapy or the removal of some lymph nodes, which may damage the lymph system. This type of lymphedema is more common.
What are the treatments of lymphedema?
Complex Decongestive Therapy (CDT) – this known as the recommended treatment for lymphedema. and has four components.
- MLD ( manual lymphatic drainage)- the therapist uses special massage techniques to move fluid into working lymph nodes, where they are drained. It is crucial that this is done by a fully trained lymphedema therapist, and not just a regular therapist. The therapist needs a throughout knowledge of the lymphatic system for this to work. the lymphedema therapist also teaches several massage techniques that can be used during the maintenance phase. Patients who have a history of heart disease, deep vein thrombosis or kidney disease may not be suitable for MLD.
- MLLB ( multilayer lymphedema bandaging) – muscles surrounding lymph vessels and nodes move the fluid through the lymphatic system. Unlike the circulation of blood there is no pump (heart). The aim here of the bandages and compression garmets is to support the muscles and encourage them to move fluid out of the effected body part. Patients will also be taught how to apply their own bandages and compression garmets correctly.
- Exercises – these light exercises are aimed at encouraging movement of the lymph fluid out of the limb.
- Skin Care- good skin care reduces the risks of infections