This article was contributed by Molly Gardeman, COTA/L, CLT,  an occupational therapist with Virginia Gay Hospitals and Clinics. In this article she shares information about lymphedema, the buildup of lymph fluid creating problems with swelling, most often in the arms or legs.

Molly Gardeman, COTA/L, CLT

The lymphatic system is your body’s drainage network consisting of lymph vessels. Lymph vessels help regulate fluid levels and provide protection against infection.  The lymph vessels do their work by pushing excess fluid, or “lymph,” through filters throughout your body called “lymph nodes.”

Lymph nodes remove bacteria and other debris from the lymph fluid before draining into your bloodstream.  “Lymphedema” is the buildup of abnormally thick lymph fluid creating swelling most often in one or both the arms or legs.  This condition typically develops when lymph nodes or lymph vessels have been damaged, removed, are impaired or even missing resulting in the blockage or interruption in the flow of the lymph.

There are two types of lymphedema – primary or secondary.  Primary lymphedema is a rare, inherited condition which causes problems with the development of lymph vessels throughout your body.  Examples of primary lymphedema include congenital lymphedema (Milroy’s Disease), early-onset lymphedema (Meige’s Disease), or late-onset lymphedema. 

Secondary lymphedema is caused by damage to your lymph nodes or lymph vessels. The damage can  be the result of infection, injury or trauma, scar tissue formation, surgery, cancer or radiation for treatment of cancer.

Symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Persistent swelling in part or all of your arm(s) or leg(s) including fingers or toes
  • Heaviness, constriction or tightness in the affected limb
  • Limited mobility due to swelling
  • Aching or discomfort
  • Recurring infections or open wounds
  • Discoloration, hardening and thickening of skin

Occupational therapists can help manage lymphedema and provide relief from some of the symptoms. There are certified, trained therapists at Virginia Gay with the knowledge and expertise to assist you managing your lymphedema.  Therapy services at Virginia Gay works in close coordination with the other care providers to provide local specialized services as a convenience for our patients.  At VGH Therapy, your therapist will assess your condition and determine an individualized treatment plan to manage your symptoms.  Therapy sessions may include:

  • Specific exercises for the affected limb
  • Manual lymphatic drainage technique (a form of gentle skin massaging intended to encourage typical drainage of lymph)
  • Decongestive therapy with the use of compression stockings or sleeves, or specialized wrapping techniques
  • Compression pumping using a vasopneumatic device
  • Wound care in coordination with VGH certified wound care nurses and primary care providers

Molly Gardemann, COTA/L, CLT