A build-up of excess fluid in the arms and legs, lymphedema is a common side affect following cancer surgery. When lymph nodes are removed, the system has fewer places to drain. The result can be swelling, tightness and pain.
“When it first starts its mild and it can kind of come and go. As it progresses, it’ll keep accumulating fluid over years and as it accumulates, it’ll kind of harden and become fibrotic and then it’s more severe,” says Jackie Speas, lymphedema therapist with Lee Memorial Health System.
Treating lymphedema becomes a matter of management. It never goes away, but if detected early enough, you can slow the rate of progression.
“We train people how to control it themselves so they know how to do all their self-care,” says Speas.
People with advanced or severe cases of lymphedema rely on compression wraps or custom garments to help squeeze and drain fluid. But therapists also teach patients who to use movement to their benefit.
“We have them do an exercise program, because when they exercise with a compression on it helps to reduce it also,” says Speas.
Exercise is meant to be therapeutic, not strenuous. Movements should be slow and measured.
“There are precautions with exercise. You can’t just go and do an extreme exercise program. If you’re not used to exercising, you have to gradually build up the intensity,” says Speas.Therapists also teach massage techniques to improve circulation. It provides pain and symptom relief, benefits also gained from exercise.