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Understanding Lymphoedema

The condition Lymphoedema is characterised by swelling of certain parts of the body, caused by problems with the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drains this fluid (called lymph) from tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream. Normally, fluid and proteins leak into the body tissues regularly from the blood. This tissue fluid bathes the cells, supplies their nutritional needs and receives back the products of this chemical process. When this system is not working properly, lymphoedema can occur.lymphedema

Any part of the body can be affected by lymphoedema, but it tends to target the arms and legs. Around 300,000 Australians will experience lymphoedema at any given time.

Women who have undergone mastectomy and radiotherapy for treatment of breast cancer are particularly susceptible to lymphoedema of the arm and, sometimes, the adjacent chest wall on the affected side.  Women who have had surgery for breast cancer have a lifetime risk of developing lymphoedema. Lymphoedema can occur any time after surgery, even many years later. Breast augmentation reduces the risk of Lymphedema when performed at the time of mastectomy.

The condition can be inherited or can be caused by a birth defect, though it is frequently caused by cancer treatments and by parasitic infections.

Signs and symptoms Lymphoedema usually starts as a painless slow swelling of an arm or leg. As the swelling increases, the limb may become heavy and uncomfortable and more difficult to move. Sometimes infection can occur. With further swelling the limb may become painful and hard and it may be resistant to pressure when pressed. Treatment Unfortunately, there is no cure for lymphoedema. The condition can usually be managed by a combination of techniques which can include: – compression bandaging to reduce the swelling – specialised lymphatic massage – compression garments – an exercise routine – skin carelymph

A number of new treatments are emerging to help fight lymphoedema. One of these treatments is laser therapy, which aims to soften scar tissue and improve the function of the lymphatic vessels. Another treatment involves the use of pneumatic pumps, which go around the arm and inflate and deflate at intervals. Liposuction is also now being used in some areas of Australia to remove fluid from the affected limb.

Compression garments are sometimes used to treat lymphoedema. They can be quite costly, however government subsidies are available.

Preventing lymphoedema

  • Gentle, regular exercise greatly assists in the treatment of lymphoedema. Muscle movement increases lymph flow and reduces the risk of fluid accumulating.
  • Where possible, avoid using the arm on the side of your surgery for blood pressure measurements, injections, blood samples or intravenous drips.
  • Avoid saunas and spas where possible
  • Use a pressure bandage on your arms or legs if your have had glands removed, when flying
  • avoid lifting excessive weights i.e. laundry basket, wheelbarrow, toddlers etc.
  • stay cool as extreme heat can irritate lymphoedema

This low impact activity assists in the stimulation of lymph vessels and increased circulation, increasing the flow of fluid within the lymphatic system and easing and preventing swelling and discomfort. The water surrounding you while swimming is also helpful in moving and draining fluid due to the pressure naturally applied to your body while submerged. It is for this reason that swimming, unlike many other forms of physical exertion, can be done without donning compression garments.

The light stretching and muscle movement that is involved in yoga can help facilitate the flow of fluids more freely throughout your body and lymphatic system as a whole.

At first, the swelling may come and go. It may get worse during the day and then go down overnight. Without treatment, it will usually become more severe and persistent.

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