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What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which the lymphatic system of the body is unable to properly transport lymph fluid from the tissue spaces back to the blood stream. Lymphedema is unlike normal edema or swelling, in that it is made up of protein rich fluid (lymph) that can only be drained by the lymphatic vessels.

What Causes Lymphedema?

Lymphedema has a variety of causes . To determine whether swelling is truly lymphedema requires a discussion with one’s health care provider. It is important to rule out swelling that may be caused by other organ systems (especially the heart and kidneys) prior to onset of lymphedema treatment.

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

It is the job of physical therapists to help people regain function and movement due to effects of various conditions, and lymphedema is no exception. Initial management of lymphedema is often quite intense, and patients work closely with their therapists in developing a treatment plan that will best address the swelling and fit the patients’ needs. Treatment is often comprised of manual lymphatic drainage (which feels like a light form of massage) followed by compression bandaging. 

Who Should be Referred to a Lymphedema Physical Therapist?

Those with: Swelling anywhere in the arm, wrist, hand or fingers after treatment for breast cancer. Trouble getting jewelry on (rings, watches, bracelets), or having sleeves fit correctly. Lack of knowledge about the condition and prevention of Lymphedema. “Pitting” in the tissues of the arm (where an indentation is made by a finger or by leaning against an object and then takes time to ‘fill in’ after the pressure is removed)


Melissa Itaaehau, DPT

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