15 Sep Lymphoedema – How Can I Manage It?
Your lymphatic system has an important role as part of your immune system, it helps the body to fight and flush out bacteria, viruses and waste products. Lymphoedema is a condition where you get swelling in one or both of your arms or legs. It is most commonly caused by the removal or damage of lymph nodes as part of surgery or radiation treatment for cancer. This leads to a blockage in your lymphatic system, which stops fluid from draining as it should, this blockage then leads to swelling of one or sometimes both limbs. This condition has no cure, but it can be managed.
If you have had surgery to remove cancer and they have removed any lymph nodes you will often see a physiotherapist on the hospital ward before you go home. They will generally take you though some lifestyle tips to help you to avoid developing lymphoedema. Often they will refer you to a lymphoedema physiotherapist or occupational therapist for ongoing measurements of your limbs to monitor for any swelling over the first 12 months following your surgery or radiation treatment.
If you are diagnosed with lymphoedema, treatment will focus on reducing the swelling and discomfort, and is called Complex Lymphatic Therapy (CLT). This is performed by a physio, occupational therapist or nurse who has completed lymphoedema training.
CLT is made up of 5 aspects, but may not necessarily include all of them depending on your personal circumstances.
- Skin care
The skin provides a protective barrier against infection, hence it is important to look after your skin and maintain the barrier.
- Manual lymphatic drainage
This is massage that is completed in a certain way that aims to improve the way the lymphatic vessels are working and reduce the build up of fluid. It assists by directing the fluid to other remaining lymph vessels. This form of massage should be done by a qualified Lymphoedema Physiotherapist, Occupational therapist or Nurse, who can then teach family members how to complete it.
- Compression bandaging/garments
Compression garments are tightly fitting elastic garments worn on the affected limb to help reduce the swelling. These should be professionally fitted, and replaced when they lose elasticity.
Compression bandaging is usually done when severe swelling is present before the fitting of a compression garment. It is usually done every day for 2-3 weeks.
General exercise will help to encourage lymphatic drainage, maintain your mobility and to maintain a healthy bodyweight. Specific exercises for the affected limb to encourage circulation can also be helpful.
Tips for managing your lymphoedema include caring for your skin, adequate foot care, staying active to help the circulation of fluid, elevating your affected limb, wearing a compression garment for long distance travel, avoiding activities that put an extra strain on the lymphatic system eg. sunburn, hot spas, tight clothing, any injections in the affected limb (if possible).
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any persisting swelling in your arm or leg.