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Recognizing Lymphedema: January 6, 2012

Severe swelling in the arms or legs; it’s the trademark of lymphedema.

“It is fluid retention. It’s not just water though, it’s water and protein molecules. It’s actually lymphatic fluid,” says Jackie Speas, a certified lymphedema therapist with Lee Memorial Health System.

The most common cause is the removal of lymph nodes, as the result of cancer surgery.

“In the upper extremities it’s usually after treatment for breast cancer with radiation and lymph node removal. In the legs it can be associated with a peripheral vascular problem or it could be treatment for cancer for the lower extremities,” says Speas.

Lymphedema is a life-long condition that requires daily management. Therapists teach patients how to use wraps and compression garments to move the fluids that collect in their limbs.

Lymphedema can come on gradually, so people may not recognize their occasional swelling is the sign of a growing problem.

“When it first starts it’s mild and it can kind of come and go, but once it stays, it’s a Stage One. As it progresses, it will keep accumulating fluid over years,” says Speas

And therein lies the danger. People who catch it early are better able to manage the swelling and keep it from getting progressively worse.

“You really need to come in and get an evaluation and get all the education, know the preventions and precautions for lymphedema,” says Speas.

In addition to intermittent swelling, people might notice a slight puffiness in the limb in which they lost lymph nodes. For example, their watchband feels tighter.

“If they notice they’re having swelling they need to get it addressed right away because it’s much easier to treat in the earlier stages,” says Speas.

The later lymphedema is caught, the more comprehensive the treatment. So it’s important to recognize this ‘growing’ problem.