Lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the tissues that causes swelling of a body part, most often the extremities. It can also occur in the face, neck, abdomen, or genitals. Lymphedema is classified as either primary or secondary. Primary lymphedema is the result of missing or impaired lymphatic vessels. It may be present at birth, but it more often develops later in life without obvious cause.
Secondary lymphedema is much more common and is the result of lymph vessel damage or lymph node removal due to cancer therapy or after trauma/infection. Secondary lymphedema can present immediately, such as after surgery, or it can occur weeks, months, or even years later.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
Signs and symptoms of lymphedema are as follows:
- A sensation of pressure or tightness of the skin of limb tingling
- Heaviness of limb(s)
- Decreased motion in the extremities
- Increased susceptibility to infection
- Skin tissue changes
- Impaired wound healing
If there is persistent swelling, it is very important that immediate medical advice is sought. Early diagnosis and treatment improves both the prognosis and the condition.
Staging of Lymphedema
Lymphedema may be classified in three stages, from mild to severe. In stage I, the swollen tissues indent and hold the indentation when pressed. Elevating the limb can temporarily reduce the swelling. If untreated, the lymphedema can cause a progressive hardening of the affected tissues with a spongy consistency. This is considered stage II lymphedema.
Stage III lymphedema is characterized by a tremendous increase in swelling, the skin hardens, and tumors or outgrowths develop, such as warts and polyps. Swelling does not respond to elevation in stages II and III. Infections such as cellulitis or lymphangitis frequently develop in those suffering from lymphedema.
Treatments for Lymphedema
Lymphedema treatments offered in the United States are:
Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) – a gentle manual technique.
Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) – a combination of MLD, bandaging of the affected areas, remedial exercises, skin and nail care, and compression garments.
Surgical procedures are sometimes suggested.
Our Certified Lymphedema Therapists can help identify which treatment best suits your personal needs.
Certified Lymphedema Therapists
Rebecca Gagnon-Pillsbury, MSPT, ATC, CLT
Susan Davidson, PT, CLT
If you believe you or someone you know would benefit from Lymphedema treatment, please contact your physician and ask for a referral. If you have any questions, please contact our Department at (207) 779-2620.
For more information on Lymphedema:
National Lymphedema Network (NLN)
Lymphology Association of North America (LANA)
Klose Training & Consulting
Maine Lymphedema Network