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How is lymphedema treated?

Getting rid of the excess liquid from lymphedema is important, as complications can develop when the condition is not treated: tissue channels increase in size and number, less oxygen exists in the transport system, wound healing may be hindered and a bacteria-friendly environment could lead to inflammation of the lymph vessels. Too often doctors treat lymphedema with diuretics, which does not solve the problem. Though they may work initially, the fluid returns because the fluid mobilized with the diuretic is intravascular fluid; thus, a person can become “dehydrated” with excess fluid in their extremities. Elevating the legs helps by pushing the fluid back into the body and allowing more area for it to be absorbed. The affected leg or legs should be placed higher than the hips.

A compression pump system can assist in pushing the fluid back up into the body. A fitted sleeve is placed over the affected area and fastened with Velcro. When the pump is activated, high pressure compression moves through several different compartments, giving a natural kneading process to the muscles. This allows the fluid to get back into circulation and be carried away. When the pump is not being used, a graduated compression stocking should be worn.

Massage can also be effective but is time-consuming and not practical on a long-term basis. In addition, physical exercise has been shown to offer relief, though since mobility is often a factor this can be difficult. If the skin is still intact, practicing water aerobics is a good and effective alternative.

Anyone who experiences swollen ankles and feet should contact his or her doctor so that the condition can be diagnosed and the proper treatment can be prescribed.

If treated promptly, lymphedema can be reversed and controlled. But the longer fluid stands in the arm, the more it builds up in the soft tissue within the fat, making it more impossible to remove.

Monitoring and treatment of lymphedema has previously been done as an ancillary part of care after breast surgery. Testing usually has been performed only after visible observation of swelling, a stage too late in the process to optimally treat. Treatment, which includes compression bandaging and avoidance of any trauma or injury to the arm, is limited in effectiveness, especially in more advanced cases.

The diagnosis of lymphedema (swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages) must come from your physician. There are many different conditions that can cause swelling of a limb. You will need to undergo a thorough evaluation by your physician prior to beginning treatment for lymphedema.

Although there is no cure for lymphedema, there is treatment. Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is a highly effective technique for managing lymphedema. CDT combines manual lymph drainage (a gentle massage technique for stimulating the lymphatic system), careful skin care, compression bandaging and exercises to promote joint mobility. After the intense phase of treatment, the patient is measured for a compression garment that is to be worn throughout the day to prevent swelling from returning. A certified lymphedema therapist performs the treatment.

Maintaining your ideal body weight can help to control lymphedema. This can be challenging, since certain medical treatments cause weight gain and can make the task of weight control even more difficult.

Some people, especially those who have had surgery on their lymph nodes or radiation treatment for cancer, have a troublesome side effect called lymphedema. As part of the immune system, lymph fluid normally increases and decreases in response to injury or infection. But when lymphedema occurs, the lymph fluid does not drain away, causing painful swelling in one or more limbs.

Fortunately, there is an effective, hands-on remedy called manual lymph drainage. It is a specialized form of massage for people with lymphedema that helps move fluid back toward the body’s core. This specialized decongestive therapy has several components. First, directed massage is used to clear fluid from the trunk area, in preparation for the second step of the process. The second step is to move fluid from the swollen limb toward the trunk. Light pressure is used during treatment. It’s very relaxing.

People are then measured for a compression garment to wear during the day and for bandages to wear at night. This keeps the limb from swelling again. People are encouraged to exercise as much as possible to keep the fluids moving. Education is also provided, so people can manage their lymphedema independently.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.