MAR 01, 2023
A lymphedema diagnosis can be overwhelming for any patient. The following information is an easy-to-understand breakdown of the basics of lymphedema.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a chronic disease of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is the large network of lymph nodes that are located throughout the body. You have thousands of them, but they’re most often found along veins and arteries. The lymphatic system carries lymph fluid on a path through the whole body and works as a filter removing bacteria, viruses and other foreign substance.
When the lymphatic system is either malformed or damaged it results in a blockage or a slowing of the lymph fluid from moving around the body. The buildup of blocked lymph fluid can cause the tissues in the affected part of the body to swell, leading to discomfort, heaviness and loss of mobility. This condition is what is known as lymphedema.
What does lymphedema feel like? The skin can feel tight and may have a tingling sensation. The arms and legs may feel heavy. Clothes may tight or restrictive in the affected areas. What does lymphedema look like? At first, it is simply some swelling. As the condition progresses, the affected area can significantly increase in size. Skin often looks thicker, as well.
Types of Lymphedema
There are two main types of lymphedema: primary and secondary, divided by lymphedema causes. Primary lymphedema occurs because something in the lymphatic system has naturally become malformed. Secondary lymphedema is caused by another condition of the body—usually surgery or injury.
Primary lymphedema can be further divided into types based on the age of onset of symptoms.
This type is present at birth and represents between 10 and 25% of primary lymphedema cases.
When primary lymphedema appears before the age of 35, it is known as
mild lymphedema. These cases most often appear at puberty and represent 65–80% of primary lymphedema cases.
When primary lymphedema presents after the age of 35, it is known as late
lymphedema. Approximately 10% of primary lymphedema cases are late lymphedema.
Lymphedema in the legs is most common in primary lymphedema. It can begin abruptly as the result of shock, severe fatigue, infection, or pregnancy
Breast cancer and its treatment is the leading cause of secondary lymphedema. But, other types of cancer surgery and treatment, inflammation, obesity, and traumatic injury can also be causes of secondary lymphedema. It will affect between 10–50% of patients, both male and female, undergoing lymph node removal or radiation therapy. Certain surgeries, chemotherapy or mastectomy can increase this risk.
Who is at Risk?
Women are at a greater risk of lymphedema mainly due to being at greater risk of breast cancer. But, women make up two-thirds of cases of primary lymphedema. Patients with other types of cancer are at higher risk, especially prostate, pelvic area cancers, lymphoma, melanoma, or head and neck cancers. Other risk factors include excess weight, older age, or rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.
What are Lymphedema Symptoms?
There are several symptoms of lymphedema and they can vary depending on the area affected or the type of lymphedema. One of the most common symptoms of lymphedema is swelling of the arms or legs, including all fingers and toes. Other symptoms include a feeling of heaviness, restricted range of motion, recurring infections, and hardening or thickening of the skin.
What Areas of the Body Can Be Affected?
Lymphedema most commonly affects the arms or legs. However, other areas of the body with high concentrations of lymph nodes can experience lymphedema include the head and neck, and the pelvic and genital areas.
There are four stages of lymphedema, ranging from latent to severe.
The latency stage is the very first stage of lymphedema and the patient is considered asymptomatic. Patients have little to no visible swelling, but may experience heaviness in the affected limb or some fatigue.
During the mild lymphedema stage, patients may experience edema only in the affected limb, but it is painless. The skin and tissues are not permanently damaged. Lymphedema is actually reversible at this stage. This means that when the limb is raised the volume of the limb is decreased.
Patients with moderate stage lymphedema experience more extensive edema. When the limb is raised, the volume is decreased but not fully. There is some thickening and hardening of the skin and tissues under the skin. Risk of infection is increased.
At this stage, the limbs are large, swollen and deformed. The skin is firm and hard. Patients experience significant loss of mobility. The edema is permanent and irreversible.
There are several different methods of treating lymphedema. The goal of lymphedema therapy or lymphedema treatment is to decrease the affected limb of lymphatic fluid and once the limb has reached the ideal size and shape to then maintain that state.
A therapist that specializes in lymphedema treatment can help you to learn exercises that encourage the lymph fluid to drain from the affected limbs.
Manual Lymph Drainage
Therapists can also use a massage technique to help the pooled lymphatic fluid drain from affected areas.
Compression garments like those used to treat vein conditions can also be used to treat lymphedema. These high-stretch, tight-fitting lymphedema sleeves and gloves are made of true gradient compression, which is greatest at the wrist end and gradually decreases as the garment gets higher on the arm. The gradual decrease in compression encourages movement of the lymphatic fluid.
Compression bandages wrap the limbs in a low-stretch bandage to move the fluid back toward the body and away from the limbs. This type of treatment applies the same amount of pressure or compression over the whole limb.
Adjustable Mobilizing Garment
These garments are sleeves that contain precisely placed foam blocks. These foam blocks are very effective in stimulating lymphatic fluid and helping to break up fibrotic tissue.
Products from ShopThuasne
Thuasne has a variety of lymphedema products available to patients. Ease Lymphedema Arm Sleeves, Gloves, and Gauntlets are gradient compression products that help alleviate lymphedema at the very early stages.
While all lymphedema patients should be under the direct care of physicians and therapists, more
advanced cases require medical devices that necessitate more direct attention from a lymphedema
therapist. Thuasne’s Mobiderm lymphedema products fall under this category. While they are not
available for purchase on ShopThuasne.com, your therapist can help you to obtain them.