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Lymphedema is swelling that can occur when too much fluid (called lymph) collects in the tissues under the skin because the body's lymph vessels are missing or damaged, or the lymph nodes have been removed.
Lymph vessels and lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system which takes excess fluid away from the body's tissues and puts it back into the blood system. It is also responsible for helping the body fight infection by releasing specialized white blood cells from the lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes act as filters where white blood cells help remove bacteria and debris from the tissues. When lymph nodes and/or lymph vessels have been removed or damaged, lymph can collect in the tissues and result in swelling.
Lymphedema is most common in the arms and legs, but it can occur in other parts of the body as well. The swelling may be barely noticeable, or it can be extreme and create difficulty when using the affected arm or leg.
Stages of Lymphedema
- Latency Stage - no swelling, excess fluid begins to build up; "normal" tissue consistency
- Stage I - tissue is soft and pitting, no secondary changes; elevation reduces swelling
- Stage II - hardening of the tissue; difficult to achieve pitting; frequent infections
- Stage III - extreme increase in fluid buildup and hardening of tissue with typical skin changes
Why does lymphedema develop?
Lymphedema can develop as a result of surgery, radiation, infection, or trauma to the lymphatic system. It can develop immediately after surgery, or even weeks, months, or years later.
Lymphedema can occur from congenital (existing from birth) malformations of the lymphatic system. Sometimes, there is not a known cause.
What are the symptoms?
Lymphedema can develop in any part of the body or in a limb, with one or more of the following symptoms:
- A full or heavy sensation in the area or limb
- Skin feeling tight
- Decreased flexibility in the hand, wrist, or ankle
- Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area of the body
- Ring, wristwatch, bracelet, or sock tightness
How long does lymphedema last?
Lymphedema is a permanent condition requiring long-term management. Discuss your symptoms and concerns with your physician, who can refer you to a therapist at Rice Rehabilitation Center who is trained in Complex Decongestive Therapy.
What treatments are available?
Treatments for lymphedema include gentle manual lymph massage, compression bandaging, compression sleeves, and exercises. Complex Decongestive Therapy (CDT) includes:
- Manual Lymphatic drainage - gentle, manual soft tissue technique that stimulates the lymphatic structure to increase lymph flow and improve the activity of intact lymph vessels
- Compression bandaging - applied to increase tissue pressure and counteract the elastic insufficiency of the connective tissue
- Proper skin care and diet
- Compression garments (sleeves and stockings)
- Remedial exercise
- Self-manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging
- Preventive measures
Treatment is completed in two phases:
- One hour/day, three to five days per week, for three to four weeks
- Lessen the buildup of fluid and reduce hardening of the tissue
- Learn techniques designed to maintain and improve the success of the treatment
- Preserve and improve the success achieved in Phase I
- Continue with self-care at home
Rice Therapists receive special training in Complex Decongestive Therapy
Occupational and physical therapists qualified to treat lymphedema at Rice Rehabilitation Center have completed 135 hours of intensive training through the Academy of Lymphatic Studies. In addition, one therapist became a Certified Decongestive Therapist through Lymphology Association of North America.
The Lymphedema Management Program at Rice Rehab Center is available through your physicians referral.
For more information, please contact:
Rice Rehabilitation Center
311 SW 3rd St.
Willmar, MN 56201
Lynn Stier, Director