What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is the swelling that occurs in the arms or legs caused by the damage or removal of the lymph nodes during cancer treatment. It results in a blockage of the lymphatic system, which also hosts part of the immune system. Due to the blockage it is more difficult for lymph fluids to drain well and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.
Some symptoms of lymphedema include swelling in the arms or legs, a heavy or tight feeling, restricted mobility, discomfort, persisting infections, and/or fibrosis (thickening of the skin). Swelling can range from little change in size of limb, to a major change that almost fully restricts movement.
If you have been diagnosed with lymphedema, you may feel overwhelmed, embarrassed, or even isolated as you try to cope with this condition. It may become frustrating to hear that there is no cure, and that you “just have to live with it”. Rest assured, we want you to know that there is treatment available and you, too, can receive the assistance you need!
In fact, Bettina, the founder of Rising Sun Physical Therapy, was motivated to work with cancer patients after personally surviving breast cancer and having to cope with an onset of lymphedema. Although a lymphedema treatment program can require a lot of effort, she speaks from experience when saying that there is a brighter path ahead.
At Rising Sun Physical Therapy, we dedicate a great deal of time to educating the medical community and health insurance companies about this condition. Even with the rise of lymphedema research, it is still uncommon for healthcare providers to know about the condition’s treatment options.
We provide a proven, effective lymphedema treatment facility. Our gold standard treatment program includes Lymph Drainage Therapy, Compression Therapy, exercise for recovery, and self-care goals. Our certified lymphedema specialists can help you decrease the symptoms and manage your lymphedema.
In addition to participating in the treatment program, we encourage our patients to take care of their overall health, including healthy nutrition, deep relaxation, journaling, and professional emotional support. All of these techniques aid in helping the lymphatic system stay healthier and will aid in a quicker, more effective healing.
Treatment of lymphedema includes four main components of complex decongestive physiotherapy:
- Lymph Drainage Therapy
- Compression Therapy
What to expect during lymphedema treatment
At your first appointment you will see a certified complex decongestive physiotherapist. You will receive a personalized care plan, and be given the knowledge about the therapeutic technique and educational materials of self-care.
During this initial visit, your therapist will go through your medical history and assess the condition of your lymphedema symptoms. This assessment determines the best course of action, taking into account the size of the affected limb and the duration of the lymphedema. We will set therapeutic goals based on your needs and condition. The frequency of your treatments will depend on the evaluation results and status of your symptoms.
Stages of Lymphedema Treatment
The course of Lymphedema Treatments are composed of the three following stages:
Stage I – The Intensive (Getting Relief)
The purpose of Stage I is to reduce the symptoms of lymphedema. This is the most intense and difficult stage in the program. The good news is that it does get easier as you learn and become more familiar with the process.
This stage may require daily treatment until the swelling is reduced to a baseline determined by you and your therapist. The number of treatments needed may be more or less, depending on the extent of your symptoms. This phase may last anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks.
Subsequent visits after the initial evaluation will include manual lymph drainage, specialized bandaging, exercises, and beginning instruction in self-care and how your body works. Your therapist is available to answer any questions about your personalized treatment plan.
We encourage you to bring someone with you to your treatment sessions. This could be a family member, friend, church member, a neighbor, or anyone you trust who is willing to be part of your self-care program and support you. We will teach you and your guest the self-care techniques to support your treatment program.
By the end of the intensive therapy, your swelling or limb size will be reduced and you will both feel and move better. The feeling of “heaviness” will be lessened and your clothes will fit again.
That is when we will measure and fit you for the appropriate compression garment, which you will wear from now on to control your swelling.
Stage II – Supportive Care (Self-Care Instruction)
During Stage II, you will learn how to support and effectively care for the lymphedema symptoms. Treatment frequency during Stage II may reduce to twice, then once per week, for 4 to 8 weeks.
When you enter the supportive care stage of your therapy, your swelling will have reduced considerably and we will have been fit for and started using your compression garments. The work, however, has not come to an end. At this point your physical therapist will guide you toward greater comfort through self-care.
During this stage you will continue with the lymph drainage therapy. You and your support team will be instructed on skin care specific to lymphedema, the do’s and don’ts of your condition, and supportive exercises. Your therapist will ensure that you know how to bandage your limb and how to use the compression garments appropriately. You will also be instructed on how to maintain the reduced size of your limb by keep the edema under control.
At the end of stage II you’ll graduate from physical therapy. You will be independent, capable of handling your own bandaging, compression therapy, lymph drainage therapy, exercise and skin care. At this point you’ll move into stage III, long-term care and maintenance.
Stage III – Maintenance (Long-Term Care)
Long term maintenance of the results achieved during your intensive therapy is the key to well-being. In the maintenance phase you are expected to do daily self-care: compression, self-lymph drainage, exercise, and skin care. It is imperative to manage the swelling at all times to prevent regression.
We recommend that you schedule periodic treatments with a certified lymphedema specialist in order to maintain your wellness and positive therapeutic results. Treatments during this stage will include lymph drainage therapy, re-evaluation for compression garment needs, and review of your self-care program.
Our experience indicates that treatment monthly, or every other month, strongly improves self-care management among patients.