A Patient’s guide to Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition in which damage to the lymphatic system causes a buildup of lymph fluid in body tissues. If this buildup is not addressed, the arms or legs may swell to several times their normal size. Lymphedema dramatically increases the risk of serious infections from even the smallest cuts or inflamation of the skin.

Lymphedema is not as rare a condition as it was once thought. Recent estimations place the figure of affected patients at 1 to 2 million Americans, plus another 250 million worldwide.

For some patients, lymphedema is genetic. Others acquire it following treatment for other diseases, predominantly cancer. Roughly half a million breast cancer survivors acquire it after surgery or radiation that removes or destroys lymph nodes in the armpit region. Others acquire lymphedema in the legs after lymph nodes in the groin area are removed or destroyed by surgery or radiation used in the treatment of melanoma or prostate cancer.

The lymphatic system (specialized vessels through which a clear protein-rich fluid flows) is a crucial part of our circulatory and disease-fighting system.

Some physicians have called the lymphatic system the “garbage-hauling system” of the body. In the bloodstream, the majority of what we call blood is actually plasma, a clear fluid, which contains the red and white blood cells. When you sprain your ankle, much of the swelling is actually caused by the plasma that seeps out of micro capillaries into tissues around the injury. Most of this fluid is then reabsorbed into the bloodstream through small blood vessels. A small proportion of the fluid, called “lymph,” is instead picked up by lymphatic vessels, which carry it to a duct in the chest region that returns it to primary bloodstream circulation. The lymph fluid often contains bacteria, dead white cells that have fought the infection, fats, and sometimes cancer cells that have been shed from a cancerous tumor. If your normal lymph nodes, the lymph fluid moves normally and this debris is filtered out. When lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels are damaged, there is no longer a conduit through which lymph to flow. Lymph fluid can arrive in any area but it cannot leave. As the fluid builds up, the affected area swells dramatically. This buildup of fluid and the resulting fragility of the skin mean that any cut or opening in the skin can result in infection or an inflammatory processes such as cellulitis.

Lymphedema provides a veritable feast for any bacteria that invade the system. And any infection can lead to scar tissue, which further damages the lymph vessels and can result in chronic recurring lymphedema and/or cellulitis.

It is extremely important to move the stagnant lymph fluid in a limb past the damaged vessels, back into the primary circulation. Elevating the swollen arm or leg can help, but is often impractical.

Most experts recommend using sequential pneumatic compression pump therapy. The Bio Compression Pump, combined with arm or leg garments, mimics the normal pumping action of the lymphatic system. The Bio Compression Pump promotes lymphatic flow by moving fluid in a physiologically correct distal to proximal (from the ends of your limb toward your torso) direction.

Your physician should write a prescription that includes the pressure setting, duration and frequency of treatments, and may recommend a local dealer to supply and instruct you in the proper use and care of the equipment. The Bio Compression Pump is intended for use in practically all settings, including at home, due to its small size and light weight. The pump is easy to operate and can be used while reading, watching TV or just resting. The pump delivers gentle compression and massage, which tends to also be very relaxing. Your doctor should evaluate and discuss your progress at each visit. He or she may advise a change in the pressure settings, frequency and/or duration of treatments as your condition improves.