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Ask the Expert: Early detection and symptoms of lymphedema

Lymphedema is the chronic buildup of lymph fluid and occurs when drainage of the lymphatic system is impaired, causing swelling in portions of the body, often in arms and legs.

It is a progressive condition that can be debilitating with complications that can significantly impact quality of life. Kristin Pritchard, physical therapist at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Collierville, discusses early detection for health care providers and people who may have it for this month’s Ask the Expert.

What are the causes of lymphedema?

  • Congenital abnormality of the lymphatic system
  • Obstruction or damage to lymphatic vessels or nodes
  • Radiation and chemotherapy
  • Removal of lymph nodes
  • Surgery
  • Chronic infections
  • Trauma
* If you have experienced any of these potential causes of lymphedema, it is important to know lymphedema can occur immediately or even years later.

What are signs and symptoms of lymphedema?

  • Increase in limb size
  • Tightness of skin
  • Hardness, firmness of the affected limb
  • Decreased joint range of motion
  • Affected limb feeling “tight” or “achy”
  • Clothes and/or jewelry fitting tighter on the affected limb

What are treatment options for lymphedema?

Although there is no cure for lymphedema because the damage to the lymphatic system is irreversible, there is an effective treatment regimen that can significantly improve the condition. A non-invasive comprehensive treatment approach known as combined decongestive therapy is the most effective treatment. CDT promotes a reduction in excess lymph fluid by incorporating four key elements: manual lymphatic drainage, compression through multilayer bandaging and compression garments, exercise, and skin care. MLD is a form of very specialized gentle massage that stimulates the lymphatics and promotes transportation of lymph fluid in the direction of noninvolved lymphatic pathways, so it can be absorbed. A therapist goes through extensive training to become certified to provide this CDT treatment.

Left untreated, tissue will continue to swell and to harden, and the affected limb can double or even triple in circumference. As the swelling continues, skin complications can occur including fibrosis, cellulitis, skin discoloration, and lymphatic cysts.

Lymphedema increases vulnerability for chronic infections because the condition causes a decrease in the lymphatic system’s function. Lymphedema impairs the system’s ability to remove impurities and results in stagnant protein-rich lymph fluid in the lymphatic vessels, which creates an environment prone to infections.

I think I may have lymphedema. How do I get help?

Baptist Collierville’s rehabilitation department is equipped with a team of five certified lymphedema therapists who are trained in this detailed therapy process.
Because the comprehensive treatment we provide is medical, we will need a physician’s referral, but if you call us, we will be happy to assist you in obtaining this. At your appointment, your therapist will spend time both treating you and educating you on how to manage the condition at home. For more information or to schedule an appointment please call 901-861-8926.

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