Physical Therapy Benefits: Lymphedema Relief

lymphedema relief through physical therapy

Physical therapy after cancer is highly beneficial for enhancing recovery. Specialized physical therapy is the leading solution to the management of lymphedema, a condition that occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged by some cancer drugs, surgery, or radiation.  At advanced stages, lymphedema can cause discomfort and difficulty with movement, heightening lymphedema relief’s importance.

Receiving early diagnosis and treatment acts as preventative measures to severe lymphedema stages. Since lymphedema is one of the leading cancer treatment symptoms, receiving lymphedema therapy can be an essential part of healing for cancer survivors. Below, we will discuss how lymphedema and therapy for lymphedema relief works. 

How Lymphedema Works

Lymphedema is a result of the lymphatic system being damaged or lymph nodes removed completely. The human body contains 600 lymph nodes located all around your body. These nodes serve as a filtration system for harmful toxins, bacteria, cancer and infections that can flow through the lymphatic fluid. When lymph nodes are damaged, the lymphatic system continues working but is impaired. This leaves the body susceptible to swelling and even worse – to infection. 

Damaged nodes also inhibit the flow of lymphatic fluid. Unlike the cardiac system, the lymphatic system has no primary muscle to push the lymphatic fluid through the body. When the nodes are damaged, lymphatic fluid builds up, causing swelling. Sluggishness, feeling heaviness and tightness, frequent infections, and perceived weakness in the affected limb(s) are other symptoms of lymphedema.

Cancer treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery can cause damage to the lymph nodes. This creates the conditions for lymphedema to appear. Lymphedema can take up to 20 years after cancer treatments to appear, which is why early surveillance with a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) is vital for detecting and treating lymphedema in its initial stages. 

Early Lymphedema Surveillance Aids Lymphedema Relief

Meeting with a lymphedema therapist before starting cancer treatment begins is the first step to early surveillance. Your therapist can take baseline measurements and assessment of your health to determine if you have any pre-existing factors that will increase the risk of lymphedema. The type of cancer and cancer treatment is also considered, as certain cancers can be in places of higher vulnerability such as around the neck and chest area. 

Once you have established a foundation for monitoring your symptoms, you can follow up with your lymphedema therapist after your cancer treatment is over. Your therapist can determine if your lymphatic system has been damaged and if treatment is necessary. Intensive lymphedema treatment starts out dependent on the therapist to treat your condition and then transitions you to more independence for maintenance of your condition.

You can find out more about how early surveillance for lymphedema works in our article here

Lymphedema Relief through Lymphedema Therapy

A cure for lymphedema has not been found, but past studies have shown that Complete Decongestive Therapy is the best method for relieving lymphedema symptoms. Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) consists of specialized massage (manual lymph drainage/MLD), compression bandaging, and physical therapy exercises to aid in the reduction of swelling and improvement in function.

Past solutions to lymphedema relief have included extensive surgeries, but those have not always been effective in the long term for repairing the lymphatic system or improving lymphedema symptoms. In recent years, newer microsurgery techniques have been developed that can be effective in assisting the lymphatic system to recover. However, these techniques still usually involve additional treatment by a CLT.  Lymphedema surgery is most often considered a last resort option if non-invasive methods do not work. 

The goal of Complete Decongestive Therapy massage (MLD) is to gently manipulate tissues to allow lymphatic fluid to flow through. This creates relief as the fluid accumulation diminishes.  This is most often accompanied by compression bandaging or the use of compression garments to maintain and further reduce edema.  Additionally, exercises are prescribed to aid in the flow of lymphatic fluid by “muscle pumping”.

To maximize the effectiveness of CDT, Oncology Rehabilitation and Wellness uses the prospective surveillance model (PSM) laid out in this lymphedema study. The prospective surveillance model acts on early surveillance and evaluations to detect lymphedema in its early stages.

Making Lymphedema Therapy Work for You

Visiting with a lymphedema therapist is the first step to starting lymphedema recovery. Your therapist will work with you to create a plan tailored to your needs.

If you are going to enter cancer treatments and have not spoken with a lymphedema therapist, we encourage you to do so. Early surveillance is important to preventing severe lymphedema conditions. Meeting with a lymphedema specialist will help educate you about what to expect after cancer treatments and what symptoms to watch out for.  You will also be given information about risk reduction strategies that can help to reduce the likelihood of onset.

Here at Oncology Rehabilitation and Wellness, we offer lymphedema relief and other cancer rehab services. We help cancer survivors recover by rebuilding their quality of life and restoring maximal function. You can contact us here to learn more about our services and sign up for your free 15-minute consultation.

If you would like further education on lymphedema, you can access a few of our articles here: “Managing Lymphedema Through CDT Therapy” and “Why Should Cancer Patients See a Certified Lymphedema Therapist”.