If you have had lymph nodes removed, there are travel-related risks that can exacerbate the onset of lymphedema and increase existing swelling.
Lymphedema is a condition characterized by swelling in one or more extremities that can result from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.
The highest incidence of lymphedema in the United States is observed following breast cancer surgery, particularly among those patients who undergo radiation therapy following the removal of axillary lymph nodes. Many of these individuals will develop breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL).
According to the National Lymphedema Network (NLN), the cabin pressure that is experienced during air flight is less than the atmospheric pressure on earth.
As the plane’s cabin pressure decreases during flight, changes in our bodies’ fluid occur. The external pressures exerted on the limb changes and the diminished pressure in the airplane cabin will result in a decrease in the movement of lymph fluid and will remain in the affected limb resulting in an exacerbation of lymphedema.
The National Lymphedema Network recommends the use of compression garments to “provide external pressure on the extremity to adequately support favorable resorption and decrease the potential for fluid accumulation in the tissue.”
The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels throughout the entire body and their purpose is to collect excess lymph fluid from the tissues.
This fluid is then filtered by the lymph system where waste products are eliminated by infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes.
The excess fluid in the lymph vessels is eventually returned to the bloodstream.
When lymph vessels are blocked or unable to carry lymph fluid away from the tissues, the result is localized extremity swelling known as lymphedema.
As in most cases, people at risk for lymphedema are individuals who have NOT yet displayed signs and symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of lymphedema but have a known insufficiency of their lymphatic system.
The NLN reports that this includes people who have undergone removal of lymph nodes or radiation therapy, which increases the risk for developing lymphedema.