Lymphedema Risks, Symptoms and Treatment Practices

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UnityPoint Health - John Stoddard Cancer Center

Lymphedema Risks, Symptoms and Treatment Practices

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If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, you understand the unexpected, and oftentimes overwhelming, challenges that treatment presents. For some cancer patients, lymphedema is one of these added challenges. However, learning the risk factors, education and proper management can help you prevent or keep symptoms at bay.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that affects 140 to 250 million people worldwide. The condition is caused by abnormal accumulation of lymph, a protein-rich fluid, which blocks the lymphatic system and causes swelling of an arm or leg.  Lymphedema can be classified as either primary lymphedema (lymphedema due to a malformation in the lymphatic system) or secondary lymphedema (lymphedema occurring as a result of disease, surgery radiation or trauma).

Lymphedema Risk Factors

Lymphedema can occur after a cancer treatment changes your lymph nodes (especially in breast cancer patients) and lymphatic vessels or an infection causes damage to the lymphatic system. In the case of cancer treatment causing lymphedema, it does not mean your treatment was administered incorrectly. Risk factors for developing lymphedema include treatment type, predisposing factors and your body’s response to treatment. Major risk factors include:

  • Having more lymph nodes removed
  • Having multiple surgeries to the chest
  • Having had radiation therapy or chemotherapy
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having infection or injury affecting the arm, hand or upper body on the same side of your body as your surgery

Lymphedema Symptoms

Lymphedema can occur during treatment, immediately following treatment or years after cancer treatment ends. Since lymphedema can occur at many points during treatment and recovery, it is important to schedule routine checkups, and report any of the following lymphedema symptoms as soon as you notice them:

  • Swelling in entire or part of arm or leg, including fingers and toes
  • Feeling of tightness or heaviness in arm or leg
  • Hardening and thickening of arm or leg skin
  • Recurring infections in affected arm or leg
  • Aching, pain or discomfort in arm or leg
  • Having restricted range of motion in arm or leg

Lymphedema Prevention

Talking to your primary care physician about prevention tips and treatment alternatives is the first step to decreasing your risk of developing lymphedema. He or she may suggest the following strategies to keep symptoms under control:

  1. Avoid having injections, finger sticks or blood drawn from the at-risk arm
  2. Do not have blood pressure checked in at-risk arm
  3. Keep skin very clean and healthy
  4. Encourage proper circulation in arms and legs
  5. Avoid heavy lifting (15 pounds of more) of a-risk arm or leg

Lymphedema Treatment

In the event that you have already been affected by lymphedema, the best way to treat and manage symptoms is to opt for Complete Decongestive Physiotherapy (CPD). While not a cure, CPD is a comprehensive treatment program that focuses on Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), compression bandaging and/or garments, lymphedema exercises, skin and nail care as well as preventive education, so you can effectively self-manage the condition for a healthier life ahead.

UnityPoint Health – Des Moines offers CPD and other preventative treatment services at our Lymphedema Clinic. To learn more information, call us at (515) 241-6839 or contact us online A physician’s referral is required.