When your lymph nodes are swollen, you take notice. It means your body is fighting off an infection and your lymphatic system is trying to get rid of the toxins. The lesser-known part of the circulatory system, the lymphatic system pumps protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body — like blood through the cardiovascular system. Along the way, it collects bacteria, viruses and waste products from your cells to remove them from your body. When your lymphatic system is compromised, your body struggles to rid itself of disease and heal from injuries.
Lymphedema is a condition that can develop from a compromised lymphatic system, most commonly after cancer surgery or radiation therapy. The lymph vessels are unable to drain lymph fluid from a body part and pump it back into the circulatory system. This results in swelling, a feeling of heaviness or tightness, restricted range of motion, aching, discomfort and hardened or thickened skin.
Ninety percent of the blood circulates back to the heart through the blood vessels, but the other 10 percent returns through the lymphatic system. With lymphedema, manual therapy helps get the blood back to the heart and the lymph fluid circulating again. Physical therapists use complete decongestive therapy to manually drain the lymph by stimulating the lymph vessels to pump fluid to the lymph nodes and then back to the heart.
Complete decongestive therapy also consists of compression bandaging, which uses specialized bandages to stimulate a muscle pump. When combined with manual lymph drainage, the pump helps drain the fluid back to the heart. Exercises specific to the particular type of lymphedema are done in a sequential manner to stimulate lymphatic flow. These exercises can be done at home to help minimize the swelling, pain and movement problems associated with lymphedema.
Lymphedema is a diagnosis that you will always have; it never goes away. But you can self-manage the condition. Physical therapists and other trained health professionals have the knowledge to treat lymphedema and give you the tools to manage it on your own.
Struggling with managing lymphedema? The Des Moines University Physical Therapy Clinic can help. Call 515-271-1717 to schedule an appointment.