What Is Lymphedema?
Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
Published September 2022
Your body has many systems in it, and the lymphatic (or lymph) system is one of them. Within this system, there is lymph fluid (which contains proteins, salts, water and white blood cells) that circulates throughout your body to help fight infection.
But your lymph system may become damaged or blocked during cancer-related treatments or other trauma, which can lead to lymphedema, a condition that, while manageable, may cause long-term conditions.
Understand the Symptoms
Lymphedema is when parts of your body swell due to a build-up of lymph fluid. This most often happens in the arms or legs, but it can occur elsewhere in the body.
Some other signs of lymphedema include:
- Tightness or hardness of the skin
- Red appearance or hot sensation of the skin
- Full or heavy feeling to the body part
- Less movement or flexibility near the body part
- Difficulty fitting into clothes or accessories without weight gain
There are more than just physical effects of the condition, though.
“There is a real psychosocial impact of swelling,” explains Jessica Taddeo, OTR/L, CLT, an occupational therapist at the Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center Warrenville. “If you’re not comfortable in showing your skin or body, if you’re not fitting into your clothes, that can hurt your mental health.”
While there is no cure for lymphedema at this time, there are things you and your care team can do to help manage symptoms.
Taddeo is certified in lymphedema therapy, and one of her patients is Odis Horne, a 52-year-old in Yorkville, Illinois. Following a kidney transplant, Odis’ entire left arm swelled up. But after additional procedures to try to reduce the swelling, Odis had not seen the results he wanted.
Then, Ernest F. DeJesus, MD, a nephrologist at Northwestern Medicine, connected him with lymphedema therapy.
“I was a little hesitant at first,” Odis says. “But then I learned that treatment was a marathon, not a sprint.”
Stick With It
Taddeo and Odis have worked together to manage Odis’ swelling. Using a combination of compression bandages, lymphatic drainage massages and home treatments, they have been able to help Odis fit back into his watch and his suit jacket, and he is even getting back to swinging a golf club again.
“The patient’s commitment is a critical piece of lymphedema therapy,” Taddeo says. “An investment and willingness to do a home program can help make the most out of what we provide as therapists.”
Today, Odis is in the maintenance phase of treatment, seeing Jessica a couple of times each week. He has seen a good reduction of swelling, and he is now able to manage the swelling on his own using custom compression garments.
Now, as the end of his treatment at the Warrenville Cancer Center approaches, Odis shares a reminder for everyone to be open to different treatments and to continue pursuing their health goals.
“Make the time for treatment and prioritize yourself,” Odis explains. “Sticking to the program and getting to every visit is key.”