Lymphedema is a very common and serious condition that affects approximately 10 million Americans. It results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system, resulting in an abnormal accumulation of water and proteins principally in the subcutaneous tissues.
Lymphedema is classified as primary — congenital or hereditary — or secondary — caused by a known insult to the lymphatic system.
Early symptoms of lymphedema may be noticed as a feeling of heaviness, tingling, tightness and warmth, redness/discoloration of the skin or pain in the affected area. These symptoms may occur before there is obvious swelling in the arm or leg. As lymphedema progresses to a more moderate to severe state, the swelling in the involved area becomes more pronounced. Long-term accumulation of water and proteins in the tissues leads to inflammation and scarring of the tissues.
Lymphedema may be present in the extremities, trunk, abdomen, head and neck, external genitalia and internal organs. Its onset is gradual in some patients and sudden in others.
Most patients in the United States develop secondary lymphedema after surgery and/or radiation therapy for various cancers (breast, uterus, prostate, bladder, lymphoma and melanoma). Secondary lymphedema can also occur after trauma, burns, infection, malignant tumors, immobility, chronic venous insufficiency or deep vein thrombosis.
Lymphedema may develop any time in primary cases. Secondary cases may occur immediately post-operative, within a few months, after a couple of years or 20 or more years after surgery.
Lymphedema is serious because it continues to progress if left untreated. If lymphedema combines with other pathologies (cardiac or venous insufficiency, chronic arthritic conditions, etc.), the pathophysiological effects are further exacerbated because of the additional stress placed on the already- compromised lymphatic system.
Treatment, designed to reduce the swelling and control discomfort and other symptoms, consists of education on how to manage lymphedema and keep it in check. Methods of treatment include exercise; manual lymph drainage; and use of compression garments, compression bandages and pneumatic compression pumps.
The Breast Center, in conjunction with West Texas Therapy, has developed a protocol to provide free screenings to patients diagnosed with breast cancer. Patients may start their complimentary screenings before surgery or radiation or at any time in the process of their treatment. These free screenings, which are done once a month for the first three months and then every three months for the next year, help to detect the earliest signs of lymphedema and get treatment started to prevent or slow progression of the lymphedema to a chronic harder-to-treat stage.
West Texas Therapy has a certified lymphedema therapist on staff to assist in treatment and management of lymphedema. Our patients can rest assured “there’s no place like home” for their care and treatment of breast health concerns, particularly after a diagnosis of breast cancer.