A swelling in a limb could be lymphedema

Published 9:14 am Monday, March 1, 2010

Lymphedema, swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs, affects nearly 1 million Americans even though many have never heard of this condition.

Lymphedema is caused by a blockage in your lymphatic system, an important part of your immune and circulatory systems. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining, and as the fluid builds up, the swelling continues. Although lymphedema tends to affect just one arm or leg, sometimes both arms or both legs may be swollen.

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired, usually at birth. Secondary lymphedema can occur when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes are removed as a result of surgery, radiation or trauma.

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Approximately 40 percent of people with lymphedema go untreated because they don’t recognize what they have. They could attribute it to normal aging weight gain, or just think, “Well, my mom had big hips or legs, I guess I do, too.” So it’s important to recognize the symptoms:

A feeling of heaviness or tightness in your arm or leg

Restricted range of motion in your arm or leg

Aching or discomfort in your arm or leg

Recurring infections in your affected limb

Hardening and thickening of the skin on your arm or leg

While there is no cure for either type of lymphedema, a certified lymphedema therapist can help you control it. After your primary care provider refers you, therapists work with you to develop a care program to meet your specific needs. The care program could include:

Manual massage of the affected limb

Manual drainage of the affected limb (done at a facility like HealthReach or at home after proper training)

Compression garments, either over-the-counter or custom, such as bandages, socks, sleeves



Controlling other health factors such as smoking

If you’d like more information about lymphedema call HealthReach at (507) 377-5900 or speak with your provider.

Patty Peterson is an occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist at HealthReach, Albert Lea Medical Center’s physical medicine and rehabilitation center.