Everything you never knew about Lymphadema

By on May 11, 2015



Lymphadema is the abnormal swelling of the arms, legs, breast, abdomen, neck, or head, due to a damaged lymphatic system or accumulation of lymph fluid (protein and water) in the tissue spaces as a result of obstruction of venous and/or lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes. Lymphadema can occur immediately, within a few months, or even over a period of years. Lymphadema most often develops in one arm or leg, but may be present in both arms and both legs. It may also occur in the hands or feet, and even in the chest, back, neck, face, abdomen, and genitals.

There are two types of Lymphadema : PRIMARY and SECONDARY.

Primary lymphadema is caused by an abnormality of the lymphatic system that can be present at birth or occur later in life, whereas, Secondary lymphadema  is caused by infection, injury, radiation, surgery, or trauma. This type of lymphadema may be a side effect of breast cancer treatment that results in chronic and debilitating arm/hand swelling. It may occur after removal of lymph nodes. It may also be caused by paralysis or venous insufficiency.

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system along with veins and arteries. It collects fluid from tissues in all parts of the body, and returns the fluid to the blood centrally. It removes impurities (including bacteria and cancer cells) from the circulatory system and produces disease fighting cells (lymphocytes) for the immune system.
lymphadema, if untreated, creates an environment of stagnant fluid causing lymph channels to increase in size and number. It reduces oxygen tension throughout the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides an environment for bacteria, increasing the potential for infection. If the condition of swelling and inflammation persists, the tissue eventually thickens and becomes hardened, resulting in decreased active motion, which can intensify the problem.

It is not recommended to have other forms of massage therapy during treatment because it may alter the direction of the flow of the lymph, causing the fluid to move to additional areas. (This includes restraining from deep tissue massage, reflexology, rolfing, Shiatsu, and Swedish massage.)

Initially an evaluation will be performed by a trained therapist to determine the proper treatment required. All patients are actively involved in choosing the treatment options that best fit into their lifestyles.

  • MANUAL LYMPH DRAINAGE to drain the lymph fluid from the affected extremity with a non-invasive manual therapy technique. (A gentle form of massage to facilitate the movement of fluid. Bandages are applies at this time to retain reduction.)
  • COMPRESSION BANDAGING of the extremity to move and reduce the protein-rich fluid in the swollen tissues and shape the extremity.
  • COMPREHENSIVE EXERCISE PROGRAM to stimulate movement of fluid, improve range of motion, including flexibility and strengthening to enhance the lymph drainage. (Any exercise that causes pain or muscle soreness should be discussed with a therapist.)
  • SKIN CARE TECHNIQUES to improve skin condition and prevent infection. Meticulous skin care is very important when dealing with LYMPEDEMA. The skin is usually dry and may crack easily, making it very susceptable to infections. A low pH lotion, free of alcohol and fragrance may be used to maintain the moisture of the skin and to protect it. (speak with your therapist for more information.)
  • RECOMMENDATION OF A COMPRESSION GARMENT and instruction with proper wear and care. These garments are necessary to maintain the reduced limb and are designed to replace the bandages that were used earlier in treatment. They are worn during the day while you are active and at night when you sleep.
  • EDUCATION / INSTRUCTION of a home program to control the swelling independently.



  • Keep skin clean by using a mild pH balanced soap when washing. When bathing, water should be warm, not hot.
  • Avoid irritating or allergy-causing cosmetics, detergents, deodorants, and perfumes. Inspect your feet, hands, and limbs regularly for skin changes. (Open skin invited bacteria and infection.)
  • Avoid cuts, pricks, scratches, burns, insect bites that could cause swelling or promote infection.Use sunscreen and insect repellent if out doors.
  • Avoid blood pressure checks, IVs, blood draws, and shots to the affected area.
  • Do not cut into the cuticles when trimming fingernails or toenails.
  • Avoid tight or restrictive clothing that may impair circulation.
  • Maintain a balanced diet. Increased weight complicated LYMPHEDEMA. Avoid excessive consumption of fatty foods, sweets, salts, and alcohol.
  • Drink plenty of water and unsweetened liquids.

With early intervention and proper treatment, the condition can be controlled, allowing the individual to lead a full and normal life. However, this is frequently a persistent condition. Therefore, techniques for self-management and maintenance of swelling reduction and other side effects are essential factors in control.

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