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Upper Extremity Lymphedema

Written by Amy Hall
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Helpful Hints for Lymphedema Management

Upper extremity lymphedema is a risk factor for any woman who undergoes breast cancer surgery that required the removal of axillary lymph nodes. Whenever the lymphatic system is compromised, as it is after cancer surgery, there is an elevated risk for the patient to develop swelling in the arms or legs. The lymph nodes work hard to filter out bacteria and other large particles from the body, and they help the lymph fluid to circulate through the lymph vessels delivering nutrients to body cells.

When lymph nodes are removed, the ability to move lymph fluid through the vessels becomes harder. Sometimes the lymph simply becomes stagnant and pools in certain areas, causing swelling and discomfort. When lymph is not able to drain properly, and swelling becomes apparent, this is a condition referred to as lymphedema.

Treating Upper Extremity Lymphedema

Any patient who develops upper extremity lymphedema as a result of breast cancer surgery knows that this is just an added stroke of bad luck. Lymphedema can become out of control if not treated immediately, so it is imperative that patients become educated on the risk factors and symptoms to look for when they are undergoing cancer treatments, such as radiation, mastectomy and/or chemotherapy. If treatment begins immediately upon the first signs of the condition, it can be managed quite remarkably.

Most experts agree that Manual Lymph Drainage and Complete Decongestive Therapy are the therapies of choice which yield the best results. MLD is a gentle-touch massage that stimulates the flow of lymph while bringing relaxation to the patient. CDT involves the use of compression bandages and/or garments, proper skin and nail care, remedial exercises and a nutritious diet. If patients follow the instructions of their health care providers, they should be able to live a pretty normal life.

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