What is lymphedema? It is the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in an extremity, the groin, face, neck or the chest. There are many reasons for this to occur. There is Primary lymphedema which is a condition that you can be born with (congenital), or can occur later in life (acquired). Primary cases occur most often in the lower extremities and, though less likely, can also involve the trunk or genitals. It can be congenital or, in most qualified cases that occurs during puberty or adulthood, have no known cause. Secondary lymphoma is usually seen after some sort of trauma to the lymphatic system, such as surgery or radiation. There are a number of cancers that can cause these consequences. Many women suffer from post-mastectomy lymph node disruption that can sometimes take years to present.
Whatever the underlying issue may be that caused the you to have a disruption in your normal lymphatic flow, the problem remains that the normal, functioning lymphatic pathways have been disrupted. This leads to accumulation of lymph fluid in the affected areas, which can lead to a large array of problems. For example, if you have a condition that leads to lymphedema of the leg, once the extremity fills with the fluid it becomes trapped with no way to be removed. The complications can be mass and severe. Many patients have recurrent infections, cellulitis and venous stasis ulcers that are unable to heal, due to the lack of accessibility of oxygen rich blood that becomes blocked by the large amount of lymph that consumes the limb. Unfortunately once someone is burdened by this ongoing disease, it can lead to lack of mobility, which causes obesity, and this can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
Conventional therapies include compression stockings, elevation, and exercise. Many patients are not compliant with these methods for one reason or another. To benefit from the use of compression stockings you must put them on before you get out of bed. This results the lymph from flowing into the affected extremity. Otherwise you are just going to trap the fluid that has already made its way into the area. This is a very tedious process for many people who do not fully understand the benefits, so it does not get done. Exercise becomes difficult and, again the patient is not properly educated to the fact that the lymphatic system works differently than the cardiac system, and relations on muscle movement to channel the system properly, and it too becomes part of the non-compliance. This leaves elevation, and this alone is not effective.
There are many studies at this time that have been produced by Duke and Stanford, that show a dramatic improvement with the use of sequential, gradient compression pumps. These pumps are mechanical devices that attach to a "sleeve" that can fit any part of the body (except the neck and face), and inflate with air in an upwards motion, preventing back-flow, to lymphatic channels that are working properly and can redistribute the lymph back into the bloodstream. For patients who have failed with conventional therapies these devices are proven to show dramatic results.
It is important to stay educated on the disease, and find the therapy that works best for you. This disease will not just "go away" in most cases, and needs to be addresses for the very serious illness it is. Take good care of your skin and work with your physician to find, and be compliant with, a therapy that works for you.