Lymphedema is swelling usually in the arms or legs, although it can occur elsewhere, from damage to the lymphatic system. It can be hereditary, but it most often occurs as a result of injury to the lymphatic system from cancer, infection or the removal of lymph nodes. For example, it is thought about one third of women who have axillary lymph node dissection as part of breast cancer treatment will develop lymphedema.
The most common symptoms of lymphedema are swelling in an extremity, the arm or leg may feel heavy or achy, and the skin may feel tighter or thicker than the unaffected side. Early on, the limb may decrease in swelling in the morning, but as the lymphedema progresses it may stay swollen all day.
The earlier lymphedema is diagnosed and treated, usually the quicker the results are seen and the better the overall outcomes are. However, no matter when lymphedema is diagnosed, treatment can still help.
A very effective way of treating lymphedema is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). It is comprised of manual lymphatic drainage, which is like a gentle massage which will help remove the lymph fluid from the affected area. This is followed by compression bandaging which will also help to continue the reduction of swelling. As the edema decreases, an appropriate exercise program will be developed and the limb is fitted for a compression garment. Education on proper self-care and hygiene is very important to reduce the risk of infection.