A Swelling Problem

A specialized program can help patients manage lymphedema

The body’s lymphatic vessels are like the world’s best housekeepers—with a perfect system in place, they come in and clean everything up. The vessels carry lymph, which is a thin, clear fluid that circulates throughout the body to remove waste products, bacteria and other substances from tissues. But when these vessels are damaged, they can’t drain the lymph properly, and it has nowhere to go.

Erica Midcock, occupational therapist

When too much lymph collects in any area of the body, it is called lymphedema. It can happen commonly after cancer treatment, but may not occur until months or years after treatment is finished.

Lymphedema can also be caused by injuries or burns that affect the lymphatic vessels. Vascular issues, such as when the leg veins don’t allow for proper blood flow, can also cause a strain on the lymphatic system, leading to a condition called phlebolymphedema.

The skin changes range from mild to extreme.

“Lymphedema can affect many different areas of your daily life,” says Erika Midock, a Certified Lymphatic Therapist who works in the Lymphedema Management Program at St. Joseph’s/Candler. “There are not only physical limitations, such as being able to carry your groceries, but also social ones like not having jewelry or clothes that fit because of the swelling.”

Lymphedema can also prevent wounds from healing properly and increase the risk of cellulitis, a common but potentially serious bacterial skin infection.

To help lower these risks and improve the quality of life for patients, physicians recommend programs like the one at St. Joseph’s/Candler.  Certified lymphatic therapists use an approach known as complete decongestive therapy, or CDT. The program includes four components:

  1. Manual lymph drainage, which consists of manual techniques to help move lymphatic fluid.
  2. Exercise, which includes stretching and some resistance training to loosen tissue in specific regions.
  3. Skin care, which includes proper cleaning and moisturization techniques to avoid dry, cracked skin.
  4. Compression, which includes custom fitting and identification of garments to reduce swelling.

“Although there is not a cure for lymphedema, it can be managed through a variety of conservative treatment options,” Midock says. “Our program combines therapies with lifestyle changes to help educate and empower you, so that you can get back to enjoying life.”

To learn more about how the Lymphedema Management Program can help cancer survivors, read our Living Smart blog.

For additional information on the Lymphedema Management Program at St. Joseph’s/Candler, call 912-819-6176.

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