To understand lymphoedema, it’s first helpful to understand the body system that it effects. What is the lymph system?
The Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is probably most simply described as our body’s ‘sewerage system’. It maintains fluid levels in our body tissues by removing all fluids that leak out of our blood vessels.
The lymphatic system is important for the optimal functioning of our general and specific immune responses. The lymph nodes (which are most easily felt in the neck and groin) monitor the lymph flowing into them and produce cells and antibodies which protect our body from infection and disease. You may have noticed swelling in these nodes when you are unwell.
What is Lymphoedema?
When the lymphatic system has been damaged by surgery, radiotherapy or other tissue damage, swelling of a part of the body may occur. If this swelling persists for more than three months it is known as lymphoedema. The swelling is casued by an accumulation of excessive amounts of protein-rich fluid. While lymphoedema most commonly occurs in the arms and legs, it can occur in other regions.
Who is likely to develop Lymphoedema?
- Primary lymphoedema: This occurs when the lymphatic system doesn’t develop correctly. It can be diagnosed soon after birth or later on in life and is often hereditary.
- Secondary lymphoedema: This is most commonly triggered by cancer treatment which involves lymph node removal or damage by radiation or chemotherapy. Other causes of Secondary Lymphoedema include trauma, infection and obesity.
How does it present?
Lymphoedema can gradually appear, and may present initially as transient swelling of a limb or other region of the body. Other symptoms may include aching, heaviness, stiffness, limitation of movement, tightness or temperature changes. People with lyphoedema may find that clothing, jewellery or shoes may feel tighter. While lymphoedema is not usually a painful condition, some people report pain and pressure in the affected region.
Can Lymphoedema be treated?
Lymphoedema cannot be cured but early diagnosis and appropriate management ensures the best possible outcome to minimise the impact of lymphoedema on a patient’s function. Lymphoedema therapists accredited with the Australian Lymphoedma Assocaition (ALA) are able to provide the most effective treatment following Best Practice Guidelines.
Physiotherapy management includes all of the following
- Skin Care: to maintain optimal skin condition and prevent infections
- Exercise: to improve lymphatic flow and to maintain strength and body weight.
- Manual Lymphatic Drainage: to enhance lymphatic flow and to establish new pathways when it is necessary to redirect flow.
- Compression: to maintain the reduction in lymphatic volume. Your Lymphoedema Physiotherapist may prescribe a garment to wear and will ensure the garment remains appropriate for your Lymphoedema. It is essential these are assessed regularly to ensure adequate compression is maintained. These garments are usually claimable through your health fund.
Where to from here
Often sufferers of lymphoedema have experienced considerable trauma that may have caused the development of lyphoedema. Feel free to get in touch with our team to discuss the best approach for you.