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What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a persistent swelling, usually affecting an arm or leg, which sometimes occurs as a side effect of cancer treatment. This condition results from the abnormal accumulation of lymph fluid and tissue proteins. In rare circumstances, lymphedema may affect the head, torso or genitals. The underlying cause in all cases is damage to the lymphatic system, an important part of the immune system that circulates infection-fighting proteins throughout the body.
Causes of lymphedema
Lymphedema can result from an infection that interrupts normal lymphatic pathway function; a traumatic injury to the lymph nodes; surgery or radiation therapy for breast cancer or removal of inguinal nodes for cancer, or idiopathic causes. It is characterized by an abnormal accumulation of tissue proteins, fluid, and inflammation within the involved extremity.
Complications include persistent swelling in an extremity; bacterial infection due to stagnant lymph fluid; pain; weakness; and numbness that can lead to loss of range of motion of the joints in an extremity.
Lymphedema Treatment and Therapy
Fox Chase Cancer Center's Lymphedema Treatment Program is available to our patients through the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Our therapists offer complete decongestive physiotherapy (CDP), a European program that has been used successfully to treat lymphedema patients since the 1980s. The CDP technique is the treatment of choice for lymphedema and is recognized by the National Lymphedema Network and various other international organizations.
The National Lymphedema Network has recognized Fox Chase Cancer Center as a clinical treatment center for lymphedema. Safe and effective, Lymphedema Association of North America (LANA) certified therapists at Fox Chase provide:
- Skin care and hygiene
- Manual lymph drainage
- Compression bandaging
- Therapeutic exercises
- Compression-garment fitting
- Home maintenance program
Preventive Care for Lymphedema
Preventive care to avoid lymphedema and early treatment if swelling does start to occur are extremely important. Left untreated, lymphedema may lead to infections, numbness in the affected limb, inability to move joints, hardening of connective tissue and discomfort or pain. As a result, patients may:
- have difficulty with daily activities;
- be vulnerable to injury;
- develop open wounds;
- need multiple hospitalizations.
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Severe lymphedema can cause an affected arm or leg to swell to a much larger size than the limb on the opposite side.
Factors that can lead to lymphedema include:
- removal of lymph nodes as part of surgery for cancer;
- radiation therapy to the underarm, groin or other area where lymph nodes were removed;
- a growing tumor that has destroyed lymphatic vessels and blocked lymph drainage.