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What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling of a body part - most often the extremities, but also the face, neck, abdomen and is the result of the abnormal accumulation of protein-rich edema fluid in the affected area. When part of the lymph system is damaged or blocked, fluid cannot drain from nearby body tissues. Fluid builds up in the tissues and causes swelling. Remarkably, even though lymphedema afflicts hundreds of millions worldwide, its seriousness and the problems it creates are poorly understood in the medical community

Treatment for Lymphedema

The goal of treatment is to control the swelling and other problems caused by lymphedema.  Damage to the lymph system cannot be repaired. Treatment is given to control the swelling caused by lymphedema and keep other problems from developing or getting worse. Physical (non-drugtherapies are the standard treatment. Treatment may be a combination of several of the physical methods. The goal of these treatments is to help patients continue with activities of daily living, to decrease pain, and to improve the ability to move and use the limb (arm or leg) with lymphedema. Drugs are not usually used for long-term treatment of lymphedema.

The Two-Phase Approach in Lymphedema Management

The first phase or decongestive phase is performed daily for approximately 2-4 weeks and includes 

  • Skin and Nail Care

  • Manual Lymph Drainage (performed by a certified MLD/CDT therapist)

  • Compression therapy

  • Decongestive Exercises

In phase two, the patient assumes responsibility for managing, improving and maintaining the results achieved in phase one.  This self-management phase is a life-long process, regular check-ups with the physician and the lymphedema therapist are necessary

Coping and Support

It can be frustrating to know there's no cure for lymphedema. However, you can control some aspects of lymphedema. To help you cope, try to:

  • Find out all you can about lymphedema. Knowing what lymphedema is and what causes it can help you communicate with your doctor or physical therapist.

  • Take care of your affected limb. Do your best to prevent complications in your arm or leg. Clean your skin daily, looking over every inch of your affected limb for signs of trouble, such as cracks and cuts. Apply lotion to prevent dry skin.

  • Take care of your whole body. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Exercise daily, if you can. Reduce stress. Try to get enough sleep. Taking care of your body gives you more energy and encourages healing.

  • Get support from others with lymphedema. Whether you attend support group meetings in your community or participate in online message boards and chat rooms, it helps to talk to people who understand what you're going through. Contact the National Lymphedema Network to find support groups in your area. The organization can also put you in touch with other people with lymphedema.

For more information on lymphedema and cancer treatment, visit The National Cancer Institute page on Lymphedema.

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