Lymphedema is a condition in which the lymphatic system is unable to drain properly, so it becomes clogged with lymph fluid and causes swelling, most notably in the arms or legs. The lymphatic system works closely with the immune system to remove bacteria, viruses and waste products from your body. Unlike the circulatory system, which moves through the body via the pumping action of the heart, the lymphatic system does not circulate on its own; it needs help to get moving.
The causes of lymphedema can be primary (inherited) or secondary (caused by injury to the lymph system). This condition is most common in breast cancer patients who have undergone lymph node removal surgery, radiation therapy or are taking Tamoxifen, and in those who have developed infection, particularly from parasites.
Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling of the affected limb, a feeling of tightness due to swelling, restricted movement of the limb, aching, local infections and thickening of the skin. Though there is no cure for lymphedema, there are many ways to prevent and reduce the symptoms.
A special type of massage, called Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) massage, is performed by trained lymphedema therapists. MLD encourages the flow of the lymph fluid by lightly stroking the skin in the direction of the lymphatic system. Thirty- to 60-minute sessions for a total of up to 15 treatments should allow the lymph to resume draining on its own. You should avoid massage if you have a skin infection or on areas that are being treated with radiation therapy.
All exercise is beneficial to get the lymph fluid moving on its own, but rebounding on a small trampoline is the best way to do this. Bouncing up and down against gravity produces a pumping action that pulls the lymph fluid through the lymphatic system to expel waste products from the cells and force oxygen from the bloodstream into the cells. The bonus is that rebounding regularly can help you lose weight, firm and tone your body, improve your balance and increase your agility.
Bandages or compression garments are worn on the swollen limb to minimize swelling and promote the flow of lymph fluid away from the affected area. Bandages are more common because they are adjustable and flexible.
Pump therapy is the use of a multi-chambered pneumatic sleeve that intermittently inflates, thereby mimicking the way your body’s muscle groups pump rhythmically to move lymph fluid throughout the system. This therapy is best when used in conjunction with MLD.
Most non-invasive treatments are effective, especially when combining several at once. In severe cases, however, surgery may be required to remove excess tissue (excisional technique) or improve lymphatic drainage (physiologic technique) in the affected limbs; but even so, it should not be the primary or only treatment.