Lymphedema has been described as “a plumbing problem.” Not exactly medical jargon, but when you consider the role of the lymphatic system and what happens when it gets blocked up, it does seem to fit.
The amount of fluid processed by the lymphatic system is truly huge. At any one time, nearly 90% of the water found in our blood is being filtered through the lymphatic system. In cases of overload, such as injury or infection, healthy lymphatic vessels can absorb up to ten times their usual capacity. But when the lymphatic system is malformed or damaged, blockages can result.
The lymphatic fluids from that particular area “serviced” by the blocked channel cannot be transported adequately. Excess fluids build up and produce swelling. In addition, the proteins that leach out of the arterial capillaries build up in this fluid, attracting even more water as the body seeks to maintain its osmotic balance. This causes further swelling.
This condition is called lymphedema, and can appear in various parts of the body, but most often affects the arms or legs. The swelling can cause the affected limb to become extremely large and heavy, causing disfigurement and disability.
Chronic inflammation causes fibrosis, a hardening of the surrounding tissues, making the drainage process even more difficult. The stagnant lymph fluid also provides ideal growing conditions for bacteria that lead to infection. So people with lymphedema must maintain a strict regimen of skin care, avoiding any wounds or abrasions that might allow entry to bacteria or other pathogens. People with lymphedema must be on guard for systemic infections such as cellulitis that can make them extremely ill.
Left untreated, lymphedema can cause serious complications so it is extremely important that the patient receive effective and consistent treatment. Surgical methods are usually not recommended except in very specific situations. If lymphedema is caused by parasitic or other infection, medications may be prescribed. But in general, treatment focuses on reducing the accumulation of lymphatic fluid.
Sequential compression therapy, sometimes referred to as pneumatic compression, or the lymphedema pump, is one of a few methods of treatment for moderate to severe lymphedema. A special device sequentially inflates and deflates a garment worn over the affected area, applying directional compression. The pressure and release cycle encourages emptying and refill of the lymphatics, while the directional compression promotes the flow of lymph upward towards the torso and assists the lymphatic fluid in finding its way around the blockage to healthy lymphatic channels. The patient wears a medical compression stocking in between treatments.