Lymphoedema is a chronic condition. It is not necessarily a disability, and in most cases, may not prevent you from continuing with your usual lifestyle and activities. However, the condition may turn quite debilitating and may require you to modify several aspects of your life.
According to estimates, approximately 200 million people around the world suffer from lymphedema. The disease is characterized as primary or secondary, with secondary being the most common type of lymphedema.
Lymphedema is the most serious and dreaded side effect of surgery and radiation and chemotherapy for cancer patients. Having cancer is bad enough, and lymphedema usually manifests after a latent period of one to five, or even twenty years after its treatment. Statistics show that up to 40% of the women treated for breast cancer later develop lymphedema exerting a tremendous negative impact on the survivors’ quality of life.
During the radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatment for cancer, the lymph nodes or the lymph vessels often get damaged or are removed.
Lymphedema, caused by excess lymphatic fluid, is often the result of such obstruction of the lymphatic system, which is a network of vessels, tissues, and organs
What is lymphedema?
Lymph, which is made up of proteins, fats, glucose, water, and fragments of blood cells contain white blood cells which can fight out infections. Plasma protein molecules in lymph are plenty. Disruption to the lymphatic system can make filtering out these protein molecules harder. As lymph fluid drains into the soft tissues, swelling of the skin, tissues, and underlying structures can occur anywhere in the body, but it is most commonly visible in the arms and legs.
The swelling would be protein rich and bacteria feeds on the protein. Hence, people with lymphedema are prone to infections.
Is there a reliable self-diagnostic sign for lymphedema?
Yes, it is known as Stemmer’s test and is an important element to confirm the diagnosis of lymphedema.
How is it performed?
Try to pinch the skin at the base of your toe. Is this difficult or even impossible? The inability to pick up a fold of skin at the base of the second toe is usually associated with lymphedema of the legs.
How does lymphedema change your life?
- Clothing and footwear
Patients with lymphedema may find it difficult to get clothing and shoes that fit. They must be cautious while choosing their clothing and footwear and select those that do not put extra pressure on the lymph vessels and thus prevent fluid accumulation.
Some people will need different size footwear for each leg which needs to be customized. It would be advisable to wear stockings, tights, or compression hosiery based on recommendations from your therapist.
- Weather conditions
Summer and hot days can be challenging for lymphedema patients.
On a hot day, blood vessels expand with heat, increasing the amount of fluid that moves out of blood vessels and into the tissues. With an inefficient lymphatic system, this excess fluid does not properly return to the lymphatic system leading to further swelling and edema.
Extreme cold, like excessive heat, can also worsen lymphedema symptoms. Clothes should never be restrictive or tight, which could worsen lymphedema. Staying indoors, and lack of activity can worsen lymphedema symptoms. Cold weather can cause your skin to be drier and itchier and lack of moisture can even cause bleeding or cracks in the skin.
- Emotional aspects
It is quite normal for lymphedema patients to feel upset about their condition. You may get negative feelings and emotions and if your feel your appearance is augmenting negativity then you must discuss with your therapist who may provide references for counselling sessions.
Treatment alternatives for Lymphedema
The standard contemporary treatments for lymphedema that are found to be effective are lymphatic drainage, compression garments, physiotherapy, and drug therapy. However, its effect is short-lived and recurrence of lymphedema is common.
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