Do you know that the lymphatic system, a vital part of your body’s immune system, aids to fight off infections and other diseases by circulating lymph (a colorless fluid containing white blood cells)? The lymph nodes in your body act like a drain in the sink. If that drain is clogged, the lymph cannot drain. When the lymph is incapable of flowing across the body, a condition of lymphedema can occur.
This condition can also occur in many cancer patients suffering from various cancers like breast, bladder or prostate cancer or in patients who had gone through cancer treatment. This problem in long-term starts affecting the process of wound healing, increased exposure to infections and affects the overall quality of life. Therefore, it is very important to get some information about this problem to identify and tackle on time.
Let us explore more about lymphedema causes, symptoms and treatment:
What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is swelling due to abnormal build-up of lymphatic fluid in the body. It includes primary lymphedema and secondary lymphedema.
What causes lymphedema?
Sometimes, lymphedema may occur immediately following surgery or radiation therapy. Or, it can be a long-term side effect of few cancer therapies and may develop months or even several years after the cancer therapy has ended.
- Sometimes a tumor can get large enough to obstruct the lymphatic system.
- Surgery to eliminate cancer may also cause the removal of lymph nodes or few vessels that carry lymphatic fluid.
- Radiation therapy can impair the lymph vessels and nodes.
- Raised white blood cells due to leukemia or infection may also restrict lymph flow.
The risk of lymphedema elevates with the number of lymph nodes and vessels damaged or removed during cancer therapy.
- Affected area feels heavy
- Skin in the affected area feels tight, hard, leathery or thicker
- The arm, leg, or other part of the body has a little swelling initially that gets bigger over time
- Discomfort, pain, and tingling sensation
- Weakness or less flexibility
- Small blisters that leak clear fluid
- Clothing and jewellery fit more tightly on the affected area
The below therapeutic options can help to reduce swelling, prevent it from getting worse, and minimize the risk of infection.
- Gentle skin massage: Manual lymphatic drainage, a special kind of skin massage, helps the blocked lymph fluid to drain properly into the bloodstream.
- Compression: Compression garments like elastic sleeves put gentle pressure on the affected area, thus stimulating the lymph fluid flow out.
- Elevation: Keeping your affected limb raised aids to alleviate swelling and boost fluid drainage through the lymphatic system.
- Intermittent pneumatic compression: Adevice fills with air and then deflates off and on (like a blood pressure cuff) to move the extra lymph out of the affected area.
- Complete decongestive therapy: It is a combination of skin care, compression, manual lymphatic drainage, and exercise to control lymphedema.
- Surgery: If you have severe lymphedema, the lymphedema therapists may perform surgery.
Tips for people with lymphedema
- Don’t wear tight-fitting clothes or jewellery.
- Avoid sitting crossing legs or at one place for more than 30 minutes.
- Exercise regularly since the movement of your swollen arm or leg improves the flow of lymph fluid.
- Wear fitted closed shoes.
- Watch out for signs of cellulitis (bacterial infection in the tissues just under your skin) as it may trigger lymphedema.
Lymphedema can raise the risk of infection. So, keep the affected skin area clean and healthy. Use moisturizer/lotion every day to keep your skin moist. Avoid burns, cuts, needle sticks (vaccines or blood tests), or other kinds of injury to the swollen area.
If you get a small cut, clean it immediately and use antibiotic ointment and a bandage. When you are outside, wear broad-spectrum sunscreen. Don’t forget to get regular health care check-ups.