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Lymphedema

Lymphedema

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Lymphedema Resources

Lymphedema FAQ’s:


Lymphedema Resources

BC Lymphedema Association

Lymphedema: BC Cancer Agency

Lymphovenous Canada

Lymphology Association of North America


 

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling of the arm, leg, breast or other part of the body that occurs as a result of a build up of fluid in the body’s tissues which may be accompanied by numbness and discomfort. Fluid, called lymph, from the body’s tissues usually drains into lymphatic vessels. Lymphatic vessels carry the lymph fluid to lymph nodes, where substances that could be harmful, such as bacteria, are filtered out and destroyed. This helps to protect the body from infection. The lymph then passes back into the blood. There are lymph nodes all around the body, including the armpit, groin, stomach, chest and neck.


Causes of Lymphedema

During treatment for breast cancer, lymph nodes may be removed from the armpit or breast region by surgery or damaged by radiation therapy. This can stop the lymph from flowing freely and can cause fluid to build up in the arm or breast. If left untreated this build-up of fluid can be difficult to control. Lymphedema can develop months or even years after treatment for breast cancer. Lymphedema typically develops gradually.


How Common Is It To Develop Lymphedema?

It is not exactly known how many people develop lymphedema after treatment for breast cancer, but estimates vary from one in three to one in ten or approximately 10 to 40 percent. The risk seems to be greater for individuals who have had multiple lymph nodes removed and for those who have had both surgery and radiation therapy to the arm pit region.


Signs and Symptoms

  • A feeling of heaviness, tightness or tension in the arm or breast
  • Swelling of the arm, breast or hand
  • Discomfort in the hand, chest, arm or breast area
  • Skin that feels warmer than usual
  • Tingling in the arm or hand

Reducing the Risk of Lymphedema

In order to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema, there are a few guidelines to follow. First, it is important to keep skin healthy in the area of the armpit or breast to reduce the risk of infection from cuts, insect bites or from burns. Infection causes the body to make excess lymph fluid to fight the infection and excess lymph fluid causes swelling.

Second, activities that put an additional fluid load on the lymphatic system such as sunburns to the arm or breast, saunas or hot showers that overheat the arm or breast should be avoided. It is also important to maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk.

Third, try to avoid activities that slow or halt lymph flow such as wearing poorly fitted bras or too tight of clothing and taking repeated blood pressure readings from the affected arm.


Lymphedema Management

Lymphedema can usually be controlled by following a few simple guidelines.

  1. Arm Elevation
    If you have any arm swelling or infection, the arm should be elevated in a resting position. The elbow and hand should be kept in an elevated position above the shoulder and the heart. This eases the drainage of lymph fluid from the affected arm back into circulation.
  2. Mild Exercise
    The contraction of the muscles around the filled lymphatic channels helps to push fluid up and out of the arm area. Flexibility exercises, arm stretches, light weight lifting and swimming are all beneficial.
  3. Sleeves and Bandages
    Compression sleeves, which are elasticized sleeves customized to fit your arm can be used on their own or in combination with manual lymphatic drainage pumps. The sleeves are designed to exert a specific amount of pressure on the limb and aid in fluid movement.
  4. Drainage Pumps
    There are a couple of options: manual lymphatic drainage and pneumatic air driven pumps. Manual lymphatic drainage is a form of gentle message that involves stimulating the skin and underlying lymph tissue by massaging in light circular movements. With pneumatic pumps your arm is put into a full length sleeve.