Lymphedema is a type of chronic or long-term disease, that causes swelling of body tissues. This disease can occur in any part of the body. Usually, lymphedema occurs in the arms or legs.
The causes of lymphedema result from the removal or damage of the lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment. This removal or damage can occur due to blockages in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
The lymphatic system refers to networks and glands throughout the body that help fight infection and remove excess fluid from the body. When there is a blockage to the lymphatic system, lymph fluid will not be able to drain properly. Fluid that continues to accumulate over time will cause swelling.
There is no exact cure for lymphedema. However, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent symptoms from getting worse and more severe.
Causes of Lymphedema
Lymphedema occurs due to a problem in the lymphatic system. The function of the lymphatic system is key to help prevent and fight infections in the body.
The lymphatic system plays a role in carrying fluids and harmful substances in the body to the lymph vessels, right in the lymph nodes. These fluids and dirty substances will later be filtered by lymphocytes – cells that attack infection, and remove them from the body.
However, when the lymph vessels are unable to drain the lymph fluid properly, lymphedema will develop.
Lymphedema is divided into two categories based on its cause:
- Primary lymphedema. This is caused by a gene error that affects the development of the lymphatic system. This condition can occur at any age, but mainly occurs in infants, adolescents, and young adults.
- Secondary lymphedema. This is caused by damage to the lymphatic system as a result of cancer treatments, such as surgical procedure to remove cancer and radiotherapy. Treatment of infection and inflammation can also cause secondary lymphedema.
When to See a Doctor for Lymphedema?
When a person has lymphedema, they should consult a neurologist. Sometimes, hospitals or oncologists may also recommend therapists to treat lymphedema conditions.
In many cases, lymphedema can be detected from the symptoms experienced and the patient’s medical history. In addition, doctors can also identify this condition by examining the affected body part and the areas around it to determine if swelling has occurred.
Through the assessment, doctors can rule out other causes of swelling, such as infection or blood clots.
In some case, the doctor will also perform a follow-up examination to identify the patient’s condition through:
- MRI, an examination using a magnetic field and sound waves
- CT scan, this examination can show blocked parts of the lymphatic system
- Ultrasound, an examination with sound waves to observe the movement of blood flow
- Lymphosintigraphy, an examination method to trace the lymphatic system done by injecting a radioactive dye liquid and using a scanning machine
Symptoms of Lymphedema
The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling in all or part of the arm or other parts of the body. Lymphedema symptoms commonly occur in the arms and legs.
Initially, the swelling may come and go over a period of time. The swelling may also get worse during the day and improve at night. Over time, the condition will gradually worsen.
Several other lymphedema symptoms that may arise are:
- Warts appearing on the skin.
- Aching or discomfort.
- Recurring skin infections.
- Hardening and tightening of the skin
- Multiple skin folds.
- Continuous infections
- Fluid coming out of the skin layer.
- Difficulty moving or limited range of motion
In lymphedema cases caused by cancer treatment, symptoms may not be felt or appear for months, even years, after the treatment.
Treatment for Lymphedema
To this day, there is no cure for lymphedema. However, there are treatments that can be done to manage the main symptoms. Treatment minimises the buildup of fluids and stimulates the flow of fluids through the lymphatic system.
Treatment for swollen skin due to lymphedema may include:
- Maintaining proportional body weight through a healthy diet and regular exercise.
- Wrapping the entire arm to push the lymph fluid back into the direction it should be.
- Pneumatic compression, a sleeve worn on the affected arm or leg. The sleeve is connected to a pump which will inflate and deflate the sleeve in order to transfer the lymph fluid through pressure.
- Compression garment, long sleeves or stockings compressed on the arm or leg and encourage the flow of lymph fluid to the affected area.
- Complete decongestive therapy (CDT), a therapy combined with lifestyle changes. This therapy is not recommended for people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure, and acute infections.
Treatment Cost for Lymphedema
The cost for lymphedema treatment varies, depending on the causes and the treatment method chosen.
For more information regarding the estimated costs of lymphedema treatment, contact Smarter Health.
Prevention of Lymphedema
Lymphedema cannot be completely prevented. However, there are several measures that can be undertaken to reduce the chances of lymphedema occurring:
- Skin care treatment. You can regularly clean and use moisturizers to keep your skin healthy. Skin infections can be avoided by:
- Clipping nails with nail clips
- Using insect repellent to prevent insect bites
- Applying sunscreen to prevent sunburn
- Avoid using injections or measuring blood pressure on the affected part of the arm.
- Healthy lifestyles. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce the potential for lymphedema.
- Healthy diet.
- Regular exercise.
- Maintain ideal body weight
In cancer patients who have undergone treatment through radiotherapy or cancer removal surgery, prevention can be done right after the treatment. Place the affected arm or leg above the position of the heart using special pads as a support.
Keep the sore arm or leg away from ice or hot liquids. Do not cross your legs when sitting and avoid wearing jewelry or tight clothes.
Home Remedies for Patients Diagnosed with Lymphedema
Although lymphedema cannot be cured, there are treatment methods that can be used to ease the symptoms.
The main treatment is by maintaining the health and cleanliness of the skin to prevent the affected skin from becoming infected. This can be done by wrapping the affected area with a wrap or compression cloth to add pressure and direct the flow of lymph fluid.
Other home remedies include maintaining a regular diet and exercise. A healthy and proportional body weight can prevent lymphedema conditions from worsening.