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Lymphedema is an abnormal buildup of fluid that causes swelling, most often in the arms or legs. The condition develops when lymph vessels or lymph nodes are missing, impaired, damaged or removed, resulting in a change in the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system helps coordinate the immune system's function to protect the body from foreign substances and includes an extensive network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes.
Excess fluid is collected from the space between tissues in the body and moves through the lymph vessels. The fluid (now called lymph) isn't pumped through the body like blood, but instead is "pushed" through the lymph system as the vessels are compressed by surrounding muscles.
Filters called lymph nodes remove certain harmful substances from the lymph fluid, such as bacteria and debris. The fluid from most tissues or organs is filtered through one or more lymph nodes before draining into the bloodstream.
People who have had any of the following procedures may be at risk for developing lymphedema:
Lymphedema can occur within a few days, months, or years after surgery. A small amount of swelling is normal for the first four to six weeks after surgery.
Lymphedema develops after breast surgery because there is an alteration in the pathway that drains the fluids involved in the immune system. It can occur at any time after the surgery. If untreated, it can become worse. Following surgery, a physician will examine you and take arm measurements. Sometimes, there may be redness or pain in the arm, which may be a sign of inflammation. Depending on your symptoms, your physician will then consider the best treatment options for you.
If you suspect any of the symptoms of lymphedema listed below, call your health care provider right away. Prompt treatment and recognition of the symptoms of lymphedema can help get the condition under control.
Symptoms of Lymphedema include:
Lymphedema is diagnosed after a careful evaluation of your medical history, including past surgeries and treatments; an evaluation of current medications and symptoms of lymphedema; and a complete physical examination. Sometimes, additional tests may be needed.
Lymphedema treatments vary, depending on the stage and cause of the illness. The most important aspect of treatment is learning how to care for your health. Your doctor or nurse will teach you and your family how to follow your prescribed treatment.
If the initial signs and symptoms of swelling are caused by infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. Other treatments may include bandaging, proper skin care and diet, compression garments, exercises, and manual lymphatic drainage, a gentle form of skin stretching/massage.
Lymphedema can be prevented or controlled (if it develops) by following the recommendations below.
Also, avoid repetitive movements of the affected arm (such as scrubbing, pushing or pulling). Do not carry a purse or bag on your shoulder (the side where you had surgery).
Dry your skin thoroughly (including creases and between fingers and toes) and apply lotion.
Ask to have your blood pressure checked on the unaffected arm (non-surgical side). And avoid injections or blood drawing on the surgical side if possible.
Notify your doctor if you have redness, swelling, a skin rash or blistering on the side of your body where you had surgery, or if you have a temperature over 100° F (38° C). These warning signs of infection could be an early sign of lymphedema and should be treated immediately.
To help decrease the risk of further swelling, continue following the recommendations for preventing lymphedema listed above. In addition:
Your physician may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who specializes in managing lymphedema. The therapist will assess your condition and develop an individual treatment plan to manage your lymphedema. Our occupational therapist is trained and certified in the Vodder technique of manual lymphatic drainage and decongestive therapy.
Therapy may include specific exercises or a complete exercise program, limitation of certain activities that are vigorous or repetitive, and recommendations for a compression sleeve, bandages, manual lymph drainage, and possibly a pump.
Continue to see your health care provider for frequent follow-up visits, as recommended.
Lymphedema cannot be cured. However, with proper care and treatment, the affected limb can be restored to a normal size and shape. In addition, lymphedema can be treated and controlled so that it does not progress further.
If left untreated, lymphedema can lead to increased swelling and a hardening of the tissue, resulting in decreased function and mobility in the affected limb. It can also lead to chronic infections and other illnesses.
It is important to receive treatment promptly if you recognize symptoms of lymphedema.
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