More than 10 million Americans suffer from lymphedema, yet most of us know very little about this chronic and progressive condition.
At UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, our certified lymphedema therapists are specialty-trained in treating the condition. They work with you and your health care provider to create a personalized care plan to manage your lymphedema.
Lisa Mager, MPT, CLT-LANA, WCS, physical therapist at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute outpatient rehabilitation clinic in Cranberry Township, answers your lymphedema questions.
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What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is swelling that occurs in the arm, leg, breast, or head when the lymphatic system is damaged or blocked.
The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory and immune systems.
What Causes Lymphedema?
While lymphedema can be hereditary, the most common cause of lymphedema is damage to or removal of lymph nodes due to cancer. In the United States, lymphedema is most often linked to cancer surgery and radiation treatment. Our lymphedema therapists often treat survivors of breast cancer, head/neck cancer, gynecologic cancer, prostate cancer, and melanoma.
In addition to lymph node damage or removal, fluid buildup may also be caused by:
- Certain cancer medications (such as tamoxifen).
- Deficiency in the lymphatic system.
- Radiation therapy.
What Are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?
Symptoms of lymphedema often include:
- A feeling of fullness around your arms and legs.
- Reduced range of motion in an arm or leg.
- Tightness of clothing, rings, or watches.
Lymphedema Treatment Options
Early diagnosis and treatment have shown to improve your chances of successfully managing lymphedema.
The primary goal of lymphedema treatment is to control swelling and improve movement in the affected limb. While there are several methods for managing lymphedema, UPMC Rehabilitation Institute uses complete decongestive therapy (CDT), a comprehensive method that combines various treatments for lymphedema, to gently move excess fluid out of the swollen area so that it can drain into the body.
Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) includes:
- Manual lymph drainage. This gentle, light-touch technique uses precise hand movements to mobilize lymph fluid and increase the overall lymphatic circulation throughout the body. It can help soften the swelling and often reduce swelling and pain.
- Compression bandaging. Trained therapists can wrap several layers of short-stretch bandages and padding around the affected limb. Bandaging reduces the size of the limb through pressure and promotes an internal pumping action that pushes fluid back into the lymphatic system and out of your tissue.
- Exercise. It is important to develop a personal exercise plan to encourage fluid drainage and build your strength for everyday tasks. Under the supervision of a therapist, you will gradually increase exercise for the affected limb. By slowly increasing activity, the affected limb becomes decongested and can handle greater levels of stress.
- Education and self-management. It is important to learn how to manage your lymphedema at home. Therapists will teach you how to apply bandages or compression-wear and share specific exercises you can do to reduce the chance of your lymphedema worsening.
“Early awareness and education about lymphedema is the most important piece of successful treatment,” says Mager. “Our team of certified lymphedema therapists will help you learn to control your swelling and help to improve your quality of life with lymphedema.”
If you have symptoms of lymphedema — especially if you are a cancer survivor — talk to your doctor immediately.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers inpatient, outpatient, and transitional rehabilitation, as well as outpatient physician services so that care is available to meet the needs of our patients at each phase of the recovery process. Renowned physiatrists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as highly trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists, provide individualized care in 12 inpatient units within acute care hospitals and over 80 outpatient locations close to home and work.