If you have a full or heavy sensation in your arms or legs, tightness of the skin, decreased flexibility in your hand/wrist/foot/ankle, difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area, or ring/watch/bracelet tightness, you could be experiencing an early sign of lymphedema. Early treatment minimizes the symptoms and can improve the outcome, which is why during the month of March OCH Rehab Services is raising awareness to help those suffering get the treatment they need.
According to OCH Rehab Services Physical Therapist Carol Walters, PT, DPT, CLT, Cert DN, “lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of protein rich lymph fluid within the body with an estimated 140 to 250 million people worldwide who are affected by the disease.”
Lymphedema occurs due to an insufficiency of the lymphatic vessels and nodes, and may develop in an arm or leg where the lymph vessels and lymph nodes have been damaged or removed. If left untreated, infection can occur which generally includes pain, redness, rash and/or red blotchy skin, itching of the affected area, increase of swelling, increased temperature of the skin, heavy sensation in the limb (more than usual), flu-like symptoms, and in many cases a sudden onset of high fever and chills.
“Lymphedema is a chronic condition with no cure, however, it is manageable with early intervention,” explained Walters, adding that treatment options include specialized massage, exercises, bandaging and compression garments.
Loretta McKenzie developed lymphedema in her left arm after having some of her lymph nodes removed. The condition caused her left arm to swell to a size 150% larger than her right arm. “It’s a very uncomfortable disease, and it also makes it hard for me to find clothes that fit,” said McKenzie. “Carol helped relieve some of my pain I was dealing with, but more importantly, she taught me how to manage the disease at home by using compression wraps,” explained McKenzie.
Dr. Kristine Edwards was diagnosed with lymphedema in her left leg in 2005, with the disease starting in her ankle. During the first stage, Dr. Edwards said she was able to control the swelling by staying off her feet and keeping her legs elevated; however, the disease grew progressively worse. “Therapy allowed the swelling to decrease enough that I was able to wear compression garments to keep the swelling down and function normally,” explained Dr. Edwards. “Carol was so knowledgeable and supportive of me. She took the time to teach my husband how to wrap my leg to provide some relief,” she added.
“Successful treatment involves a team approach between the patient, physician, and lymphedema therapist. Lymphedema therapists are physical therapists, occupational therapists or massage therapists who have been specifically trained in manual lymph drainage (massage) techniques, bandaging and compression garment applications for the treatment of lymphedema,” explained Walters.
There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema can be present at birth. With primary lymphedema, the swelling occurs for many reasons usually deformities in the lymph nodes or vessels. Secondary lymphedema results from surgical removal of the lymph nodes, blockage of the lymph nodes, damage to the lymph vessels, scarring across the vessels, radiation therapy, infection, trauma, obesity or chronic venous insufficiency. Secondary lymphedema can occur at any time postoperatively or may not appear for months or years. Secondary lymphedema is most often the cause of arm swelling in women after treatment for breast cancer.
Dr. Edwards encouraged others suffering from lymphedema to seek help. “By all means, don’t hesitate to go! Therapy can mean the difference between having a normal day-to-day life or suffering. It makes all the difference in the world.”
For more information about lymphedema, contact the National Lymphedema Network at 800-541-3259 or www.lymphnet.org/. A physician’s order is required for lymphedema treatment. For more information about OCH Regional Medical Center Outpatient Rehabilitation Services, call 662-615-3020 or visit www.och.org.