Rehabilitation Services
1521 Gull Rd.
Kalamazoo, MI 49048 |


What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema, chronic swelling, is caused by inadequate drainage of lymph ?uid, and can happen anywhere on the body, though it’s most common in the arms and legs.

Currently, 2 million people in the United States face the painful and potentially dangerous swelling of their limbs caused by lymphedema.  If it’s not treated quickly and properly, the swollen area is more likely to become injured and infected, causing pain, inconvenience and sometimes even disability.

What does the lymphatic system do?

The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system. Part of its role is to collect bacteria and excess proteins from the tissues and return them to the bloodstream for elimination from the body. The lymphatic system also produces lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) for the immune system.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

Lymphedema begins as a soft, ?uid-?lled swelling anywhere on the body, though usually in the arms or legs. The affected area may also become in?amed. Eventually, the area may thicken and the skin may break down.  Patients may experience pain, a change in sensation or “heaviness” of the affected limb, diminished range of movement, or strength and/or difficulty performing normal activities.  Skin breakdown, chronic wounds and recurrent cellulitis (infection of the skin and underlying tissues) are also symptoms of lymphedema.

What causes lymphedema?

There are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is genetic and may develop at any time for unknown reasons. Secondary lymphedema is more common. It usually results from lymph node resection, radiation therapy, trauma and/or scarring from infection.  Lymphedema is caused by any obstacle, which impairs normal functioning of the lymphatic system. Such obstacles typically result from:

  • Absence of properly functioning lymph vessels or nodes, often due to surgical excision of some or all lymph nodes in an area
  • Blockage in the lymphatic system due to scarring or persistent swelling in any area of the body
  • An inability of the lymphatic system to remove sufficient waste in a timely manner

What is the treatment for lymphedema?

There are a number of treatment options available. A specific program is tailored to the needs of each patient. Treatments may include:

  • Manual lymphatic treatment (MLT)
  • Medical compression bandaging
  • Special exercises to increase lymphatic drainage
  • Skin care / wound management and precautionary advice
  • Advice on changing lifestyle / daily living activities
  • Pneumatic pump
  • Patient education and instruction in self-management techniques

What if lymphedema goes untreated?

Lymphedema is a stagnant pool of protein-rich fluid. It provides a host environment for bacteria and, if untreated, increases the chance of infection in the affected area. In addition, due to persistent swelling, the patient may experience pain, heaviness and/or loss of function of the affected extremity, resulting in a disruption of normal activities.