What is Lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is swelling, usually in the arms of legs, caused by an abnormal accumulation of lymph fluid. Lymphoedema can occur if the lymphatic drainage system is damaged, blocked, underdeveloped or surgically cut. It is most common in the arms and legs, but may occur anywhere in the body.
What are the signs of Lymphoedema?
- A sense of fullness or heaviness in the limb. The sensation of swelling may be present before it can be seen.
- Puffiness or swelling anywhere in the quarter of the body that has had radiotherapy or surgery.
- Pins and needles or numbness in the limb.
- Pitting Oedema – that is, if you press your skin and hold it a moment, the skin does not bound back immediately.
- Aching of the limb, shoulder or the back of the shoulder (if the lymphoedema is the upper quarter) or the buttocks (leg lymphoedema)
- A sensation of “bursting” in the limb.
Don’t ignore these symptoms. Seek treatment before it becomes more serious or progresses.
Who gets Lymphoedema?
A person at risk of developing lymphoedema if you have had:
- Surgery, especially when the lymph nodes are also removed for the treatment of cancer (examples include breast, prostate, ovarian cancer), or when there is removal of a lot of tissue (e.g. excision of melanoma).
- Radiotherapy, which kills tumour cells but also destroys the lymph nodes by blocking them with fibrous scar tissue.
- Trauma, which may disrupt the lymphatic vessels. Excessive scarring in the area may also constrict the lymphatic vessels.
- Infections, lime lymphangitis.
- Parasites (eg. filariasis) found mostly in certain areas of South East Asia, India and Africa. This parasite damages some of the lymphatic vessels.
What is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is a system found throughout your body, and consists of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes and other lymphatic tissue.
Is there treatment for Lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is an ongoing condition. It can never be completely cured, but can be greatly improved with good treatment, so that you may live your life fully.
Treatment usually consists of three to four main aspects, all of which are important but must be tailored to your individual needs and situation.
- Manual lymphatic drainage massage (from a specially trained therapist).
- Compression bandaging and/or compression garments.
- Special excerises, including self massage, breathing exercises and movement.
- Benzo-pyrone drugs (not available in South Africa).
- Kinesiotaping where appropriate.
How to avoid getting Lymphoedema
- Don’t allow anyone to measure your blood pressure, take blood or give an injection in the limb that is at risk, or already has lymphoedema.
- Take precautions to avoid trauma to the limb, e.g. insect bites, cuts, burns, sunburn, scratches, etc.
- Do not lift heavy things or do strenuous activity with the limb that is at risk or has lymphoedema.
- Do net wear tight jewellery like rings and watches on that side.
- Avoid tight clothing e.g. wrist cuffs, waist bands, bra straps, tight shoe straps, elastic around the ankles, etc.
- Keep cool.
- Keep any wounds spotlessly clean and treat any cuts, scratches or mild infections immediately.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet.
What should I do if I think I have Lymphoedema?
First you should see your doctor, to be sure that the swelling is Lymphoedema and is not caused by anything else.
If your doctor confirms that you have Lymphoedema (even if it is only mild), or if you are still concerned, you must then find a specially trained Lymphoedema Therapist. Finding a therapist who has undergone specialised training for the treatment of Lymphoedema is important as incorrect treatment can worsen the condition.
Please feel free to contact me in order to make an appointment for an evaluation and/or treatment, or to assist you to try and find a Lymphoedema therapist in a more convenient location.