By Sarah Costa, CMT
Many people who have fought hard and won their battle against cancer, find themselves facing a new enemy. Lymphedema is a common condition for post-cancer patients that experienced the removal of or disruption/damage to lymph nodes or vessels following surgery or radiation treatment. This permanent damage to the lymphatic system causes an accumulation of lymphatic fluids, or swelling, in the limbs. Although the most common cause of lymphedema is damage from cancer-related radiation treatment, other causes include heredity, hip surgery, obesity and varicose veins.
What are the signs of lymphedema? According to the Lymphedema Institute of Houston, TX, the common symptoms are:
- A chronic, heavy swollen limb
- Localized fluid accumulation in other body areas
- Discoloration of skin overlying the lymphedema
- Severe fatigue
For post-cancer patients, this condition may not appear until months or even years after radiation treatment. Many patients are frustrated by the lack of support and information given to them concerning the threat of lymphedema following radiation treatment. This certainly compounds the problem given that early detection and immediate treatment are the best weapons against this condition.
Why is it so important to treat lymphedema quickly? The lymphatic system is part of our immune system and its main responsibility is to remove interstitial fluid from our tissues. In addition, it absorbs and transports fatty acids, transports white blood cells, and transports antigen-presenting cells in order to stimulate our immune system when needed. The lymphatic system can be looked at like “the sewer system of the body” because it gets rid of toxins like fats, viruses, and large proteins by transporting them through its vessel system, where it eventually filtered by the kidneys. Therefore, when there is a blockage or backup of lymph in the body the lymphedemic tissues can be at risk for infection. Immediate and regular treatment gets the lymph moving again in the body and keeps our interstitial fluids healthy.
What treatment options are available for people with lymphedema? Depending on the severity of the case, there are many levels of treatment. Mild cases can be helped with compression garments, or bandaging and wrapping the area with short-stretch bandages. Sequential gradient pump therapy utilizes and multi-chambered pneumatic sleeve to squeeze the limb and stimulate the movement of lymph in the proper sequence of how it naturally circulates through the body. Specialized surgery is reserved for the most extreme cases.
Two types of treatments for lymphedema that are offered here at HOPE Wellness Institute are manual lymphatic drainage and low light laser therapy. Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a type of gentle massage that uses a specific amount of pressure (less than 9 ounces per square inch) and rhythmic circular movements to stimulate lymph flow in its natural circulation through the body. Basically, the therapist is replacing the non-working lymphatic system by manually moving lymph through the body with very light massage. MLD is now recognized in the medical world as the primary tool in lymphedema management. Second, low light laser therapy (LLLT), which was cleared by the FDA for the treatment lymphedema in November 2006, has been clinically supported by the US National Cancer Institute as effective in reducing lymphedema. The laser treatment has been found effective in reducing extracellular fluid and tissue hardness.
The good news is that many cases of lymphedema can be manageable if detected early and treated immediately and regularly. In addition to treating lymphedema, both MLD and TTTL are effective in reducing swelling and decreasing recovery time associated with sprains, bruising, and surgeries. Please call HOPE Wellness Institute with any questions you may have regarding the Manual Lymphatic Drainage or Low Light Laser Therapy services we offer.