Understanding Lymphedema: Causes and Treatment

Understanding Lymphedema: Causes and Treatment

Lymphedema is most commonly associated with breast cancer patients who have had radiation treatments. However, the condition is not isolated to this section of the population. We sat down with Allied Services Diane Jason, OTR/L, CLT/LANA to learn more about the condition, its causes and treatment options.

Firstly, Diane, can you explain what lymphedema is and who it affects?

Lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of a protein rich fluid called lymph. This buildup of waste and fluid can occur in a body part when lymph nodes or vessels are destroyed, damaged, or missing. This buildup of fluid causes swelling. Primary lymphedema occurs due to a malformation of the lymphatic system, meaning individuals are born with the condition. Secondary lymphedema results from some type of injury to a healthy lymphatic system. Examples could be radiation damage, removal of lymph nodes, infections such as cellulitis, and many other reasons.

What can someone with lymphedema expect? Will they experience swelling all over, or just in one area of the body?

Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling in one or more extremities. The swelling may range from mild to severe and disfiguring depending on the stage.

  • Stage 0, also known as the latent stage, has no measurable swelling. Often there are no apparent symptoms, but patients will report heaviness and aching in the affected area.
  • Stage 1, there is pitting edema, and swelling is measurable. Usually, swelling subsides with elevation.
  • In early Stage 2, elevation does not help to reduce swelling, and pitting edema is more common. Late stage 2 is marked by tissue fibrosis and firmness. Pitting edema may or may not be noted in this stage.
  • Stage 3 is when skin changes are noted. Examples are darker skin (hyperpigmentation), skin folds, and thickening of the skin. The affected area is hard and there is no pitting.

What can lymphedema sufferers do to manage the condition?

Finding a reasonable day-to-day balance to managing lymphedema is essential. Living with lymphedema and living a healthy life is possible thanks to proper management and care. There are a range of lymphedema treatments designed to reduce swelling and control discomfort and other symptoms. The gold standard of treatment is complete decongestive therapy. The four elements are:

  • skin care
  • manual lymph drainage
  • compression therapy (bandaging or a compression system)
  • home programs (exercise and self or assisted manual lymph drainage).

Where is Allied Services Lymphedema Program available?

The lymphedema program at Allied Services provides comprehensive rehab care to patients with acute to chronic lymphedema. Our Certified Lymphedema Therapists provide individualized treatment plans and education to help patients manage their condition. Patients at Allied Services can benefit from advanced technology such as negative pressure devices that promote lymphatic circulation. Our staff has attended advanced training and several are certified in the Vodder Technique, as well as by the Lymphedema Association of North America (LANA). The lymphedema program is available in our Dickson City, Pittston, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre Rehab Centers and is delivered by the staff members below:

Learn more about Allied Services lymphedema program. – this will be linked to the lymphedema page on our website.

About the Author: Diane Jason, OTR/L, CLT/LANA is a graduate of College Misericordia, where she obtained a Bachelors of Science Degree in Occupational Therapy. Diane is also a certified lymphedema therapist and obtained her LANA Lymphedema Association of North America certification in 2003. Diane is also a member of the NLN National Lymphedema Network. She has been with Allied Services for 30 years working as an Occupational Therapist and currently serves patients at Allied Services Wilkes-Barre Rehab Center.