What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a accumulation of protein rich lymph fluid which lies in the space between the skin and the underlying soft tissues. It may occur with damage to any part of the lymphatic system as it occurs in removing the lymph nodes in the breast. Damage can also occur from infection, or with radiation therapy.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

The common symptoms of lymphedema are frequent infections or cellulitis, a full or heavy sensation in the arm, skin feeling tight, decreased flexibility in the hand, wrist or fingers, difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area, or tightness of a ring/wristwatch/bracelet.

Why the early treatment is necessary?

When lymphedema is left untreated, fluid continues to accumulate in the arm which leads to an increase of swelling and hardening or fibrosis of the tissue. The swollen arm becomes a good culture medium for bacteria and leads to recurrent infections. If left untreated it can lead to a decrease or loss of function of the arm, skin breakdown, chronic infections and possible irreversible complications.

What are the treatment options for lymphedema?

If the cause of lymphedema is an infection, the doctor will assess for treatment with antibiotics.  The recommended treatment plan for lymphedema :

  • Manual Lymph drainage (In this lymph fluid from the swollen arm is redirected by a gentle massage-like technique)
  • Proper skin care and knowledge of lymphedema precautions
  • Compression therapy
  • Utilizes and compression garments (arm sleeves, gloves as needed)
  • Exercises to assist with the movement of lymph fluid and increase joint and muscle/fascia mobility.

Who are the Patients at risk?

The patients who had undergone

  • Modified radical mastectomy (Whole of the breast along with axillary lymph nodes are removed)
  • Breast conservation surgery ( Tumor along with some amount of breast tissue around the tumor and axillary lymph nodes are removed)
  • Axillary lymph node dissection
  • Radiation to axilla
  • Lymphedema can occur immediately postoperative, during radiation, within a few months, a few years or even decades or more after cancer treatment.