If you are suffering from Lymphedema, you are not alone. Lymphedema affects 1 in 1000 Americans, and cancer patients are at a high risk of developing this condition. Though the cause is not curable, the symptoms of lymphedema can be greatly reduced through targeted lymphedema therapy.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymph nodes regulate the lymphatic fluid, which fights against infection and balances the fluid in the body. When the nodes are damaged, lymphatic fluid will then build up in areas such as the legs and trunk, creating swelling. This condition is called “lymphedema”.
Lymphedema comes in two forms: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by genetic abnormalities that appear at birth. Secondary lymphedema is a result of the lymph nodes being damaged, commonly through cancer surgery, radiation therapy, or an infection.
Stages of Lymphedema
Secondary lymphedema comes in four stages: At-risk, mild, moderate, and severe.
Those at-risk have the conditions for lymphedema but have not shown signs of swelling.
The mild stage shows some pitting, which is when a finger can be pressed into the skin and the skin will retain the deepened imprint after the pressure is removed. Mild lymphedema can be relieved with elevation.
Moderate lymphedema shows increased swelling that requires more involved treatment to alleviate.
The severe stage involves hardened tissues (fibrosis), increased skin flaps and fat deposits, and changes in pigmentation.
Catching lymphedema before symptoms start to show is an excellent way to prevent later stages. Before starting cancer treatments, consulting with a lymphedema therapist can help you know if you are at risk and what to expect. After cancer treatments, following up with a lymphedema therapist will help you know if you have damaged lymph nodes and lymphedema symptoms.
Common Lymphedema Symptoms
Symptoms of lymphedema are as follows:
- Feeling of tightness in the affected area
- Aching or heaviness in the arm or leg
- Rings or shoes become tight
- Clothing seems tight in the affected limb/area
- Redness in the limb/affected area
- Feeling of weakness in the arm or leg
- Restricted range of motion
- Recurring infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, please contact a lymphedema therapist.
In particular for cancer patients, lymphedema can take time to appear and may not be visible many months after the cancer treatments are complete. Early detection and implemented therapy can minimize lymphatic fluid building up and affecting your health.
How Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) Helps Lymphedema
Lymphedema does not yet have a cure; however, noninvasive therapy has shown to be most effective in combating the disease.
Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is the leading method for decreasing the symptoms of lymphedema. When the lymph nodes are damaged, the lymphatic fluid becomes more protein-rich, making it harder for it to flow through the tissues. CDT involves techniques that will help the lymphatic fluid continue through the system.
CDT involves two phases: decongestion and maintenance. During the decongestion phase, your lymphedema therapist will focus on manual lymph drainage, which is an advanced massage technique that targets tight spots and drains the fluid from those areas.
Once decongestion is achieved, your therapist will then focus you on maintenance. Maintenance involves techniques including compression bandaging, lymphedema exercises and education, and custom garment fitting.
Frequent lymphedema exercises and massages help increase the flow of the lymphatic fluid and keep negative symptoms at bay.
Meet with a Lymphedema Therapist
While it can seem that the initial symptoms of lymphedema are personally manageable, we encourage all who experience lymphedema to seek out a licensed therapist to track and relieve symptoms. Lymphedema can cause great distress and limit mobility, especially in the more advanced stages.
If you are going through cancer treatments or have completed your cancer treatments, please meet with a lymphedema therapist. Their expertise can help you navigate lymphedema and help relieve your symptoms.
You are not alone in your lymphedema journey. Your therapist will educate you on everything you should know and encourage you along the way.