Lymphoedema: What is it, what causes it, and how is it treated?

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Lymphoedema is a condition in which excess fluid collects in the tissues, causing swelling. It is typically a long-term condition, and one side of the body usually experiences more swelling than the other. The lower body is affected more often than the upper body, but any part of the body, including the legs, arms, face, and trunk, can be affected.

This condition can be quite painful, with Kimberly Van Loan, MS OTR/L, CLT, a lymphoedema and breast cancer specialist at Sundog Rehabilitation, explaining that “if you get too much fluid in one area, it wants to leave that part of the body. You have to get it out to relieve some of that pain.” Many people may also feel numbness and tingling, likely due to the excess fluid pushing on a nerve.

There are many causes of lymphoedema. One such cause is surgery, where the lymph nodes might have been impaired during the procedure. Another common cause is obesity, or it can be hereditary. In some cases, someone may have an injury where lymphoedema becomes a lifelong condition.

For those concerned about developing lymphoedema, the best form of prevention is diet, exercise, and drinking plenty of water.

Breast cancer patients are more prone to lymphoedema likely because they often receive mastectomies, which usually involve some form of lymph node removal. Even if the patient does not need a mastectomy, they will still likely need a biopsy of two or three lymph nodes.

“Any time you lose a lymph node you’re already prone to impairments, or blockage of lymphatic fluid, which will cause that swelling,” explains Van Loan. This swelling can occur anywhere from 2 weeks following surgery to 20 years later.

Radiation is also a cause of lymphoedema, and with radiation, fluid retention may not happen until a few years down the line.

The primary treatment for lymphoedema, covered by most health insurances, is manual lymph drainage, which is essentially a gentle massage that stimulates the lymph nodes and moves the fluid manually. In some cases, bandage wrapping may be offered in addition to the manual lymph drainage.

“To get the biggest bang for your buck, you would do manual lymph drainage first,” explains Van Loan, “and then following that, to keep the fluid where you have been able to massage it out, you would bandage wrap it with specialized materials.”

Bandage wrapping is a technique used after manual lymph drainage to reduce the fluid buildup and maintain the state achieved with manual lymph drainage. Bandaging does this by fitting compression garments around the skin, anywhere on the body that it is needed.

Unfortunately, lymphoedema is a lifelong condition with no form of medication, and so it requires daily maintenance to keep it under control.

For anyone diagnosed with lymphoedema, Van Loan recommends that “once you’re diagnosed, the best thing to do is definitely come to visit a PT or OT who specializes in lymphoedema and have them go through the education and training process of what you can do for yourself.”

You can learn more about the treatment and management of lymphoedema offered at Sundog Rehabilitation by calling 605-787-2719 or visiting their website, sundogrehab.com.


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