The body’s lymphatic system is responsible for filtering waste material from the body. The functioning of the lymph nodes and immune system are intertwined, and when a blockage occurs, it results in a condition known as lymphadema. In lymphedema, the lymph nodes are unable to drain fluids properly. This leads to a build-up of toxin-filled fluids. This leads to pain, swelling and discomfort over time.
Lymphedema can affect any part of the body, although it is most common in the arms and legs. There are many causes, but the most common cause is damage to, or removal of the lymph nodes due to cancer treatment, specifically breast cancer treatment in women.
Symptoms appear over time, so they are often overlooked by patients. Lymphedema can be managed with physical therapy, and early identification and diagnosis is the key to effective treatment.
Signs and Symptoms:
There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. The first is caused by rare inherited conditions that include Milroy’s disease, Meige’s disease, and late-onset lymphedema after the age of 35. The second, more common form, is a result of cancer and the radiation treatment associated with it. Secondary lymphedema may also occur as a result of scar tissue, history of multiple surgeries or obesity.
Swelling in the arms or legs is the primary symptom of lymphedema. It can extend to the toes and fingers. Swelling may be mild and barely noticeable, but at the other end of the spectrum is extreme swelling that prevents the use of the limb. The affected body part feels heavy, and skin feels tight, producing discomfort and achiness. Recurring infections are common, along with thickening and hardening of the skin.
Physical therapy techniques focus on reducing and controlling symptoms, pain relief, and alleviating future recurrences. The physical therapist may utilize gentle exercises, clinical Pilates, yoga and therapeutic massage to improve circulation and help drain fluids. Specialized wrapping techniques may also be used to redirect fluid so it can be eliminated from the body.
Patients may also benefit from pneumatic compression and compression garments. However, individuals with blood clots, infections or congestive heart failure cannot tolerate compression garments. A physical therapist may decide to use specialized manual lymph drainage techniques in such situations. Low-level laser therapy can help stimulate the immune system, reduce tissue hardness, and alleviate fluid build-up.
Physical Therapy can improve comfort and quality of life for patients of all ages. Techniques include skilled hands-on treatment, exercise programs, education in proper skin care and protection of the affected area. Contact us today to learn more about what physical therapy can do for you.