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What is Lymphedema and why should a see a PT for it?

July 6, 2016

Lymphedema is defined as swelling in an extremity.  It is most common in the upper extremities (one or both) but can also present in one or both legs.  It is caused by damage or malfunction of one or more lymph nodes which are used to funnel fluid out of the limbs as part of the immune system.   Early signs include swelling in the further aspect of the limb (ie hand or foot), a feeling of heaviness in the limb, difficulty with clothing or jewelry fitting properly, decreased range of motion, achy or sore limb, recurrent infections to the area and a thickening of the skin.  Lymphedema may be primary (originating on its own) or secondary (caused by something else). 
Primary Lymphedema is a rare, inherited condition in which the lymphatic system does not develop in a typical manor.  Secondary lymphedema is much more common and can be caused by Surgery, trauma, Cancer or cancer treatments and infection.  Risks of developing lymphedema increase with age, excessive weight and some forms of arthritis.  It is not uncommon for secondary lymphedema to develop years after its cause, especially in cases of cancer patients. 
There is no cure for lymphedema; however symptoms can be well managed with exercise, compression therapies, and massage.  Guided exercise using light, gentle contractions of various muscles helps to stimulate the lymph fluid and move it out of the limb to the next undamaged lymph node.  It will also improve the function and coordination of the limb making it easier to accomplish daily tasks.  Massage, when done correctly also facilitates movement of lymph fluid out of the limb and can reduce the heaviness and achiness of the condition.  Compression therapies include wrapping of the limb, the fitting of compression garments for daily wear and sometimes the use of a pneumatic pump on the effected limb.  
If you experience swelling of one or more limbs, please consult with a doctor as not all swelling is lymphedema and swelling can be a symptoms of a more serious problem.  If you are diagnosed with lymphedema, speak to your doctor about starting physical therapy to manage your symptoms and preserve your overall health and function. 

Mayo Clinic and the National Lymphedema Network

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