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Understanding Lymphedema: The Overlooked Disease

Lymphedema, whether by primary causes or secondary causes, can be confusing, frustrating, and painful. The causes and the full impact of this condition are still not very well known. However, as a Certified Lymphedema Physical Therapist skilled in Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), let me assure you that there are resources and help if you suffer from lymphedema or suspect you may suffer from it. That said, I want to spread awareness about this manageable condition. 


How Healthy is Your Lymphatic System?


In order to answer the question: What is lymphedema? I would like to describe what it looks like to have a healthy, working lymphatic system and why it’s so important. 


A healthy and working lymphatic system is made up of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes and lymphoid tissues. Its primary function is to absorb and transport fluid throughout the body. Lymph vessels sit right under the skin, so they are superficial and a bit fragile.


The lymph nodes can be located all over the body in different areas, but the major areas where you can find lymph nodes and can potentially see swelling are in the face and neck area, axillary (armpit), abdominal, inguinal (groin), and popliteal (behind the knee). There are also other smaller clusters throughout the body.


Other functions of the lymphatic system include managing fluid levels in the body, reacting to bacteria, dealing with cancer cells, dealing with cell products that otherwise would result in disease or disorders, and absorbing some of the fats in our diet from the intestine. 


How Common is Lymphedema?


Lymphedema is often under diagnosed and overlooked or mistaken for another disease. There are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Ten percent of all cases are primary, or congenital, and the rest are secondary, or acquired. To further break the secondary cases, 22% are non-cancer related and 68% are cancer related. Without treatment, lymphedema will impact quality of life and causes serious complications. 


If you have unexplained and/or chronic swelling, ask your doctor to consider or rule out lymphedema. After that diagnosis, it is important that you seek help from a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) who can properly assess, create a plan, and treat your condition. Treatment for this condition can include a combination of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression bandaging, exercise, nutritional education, and skin/nail care. 


Even if symptoms of lymphedema don’t apply to you, someone you know may be suffering needlessly. Please consider these two things: (1) if you know anyone with lymphedema or suspect that someone you know suffers from it, kindly pass this information as an act of love. When we spread awareness and more people become cognizant of their options, the more successful their prognosis will be with earlier intervention; and (2) Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) is a great wellness tool to boost your immune system, prep your lymphatic system for better fat absorption, and overall improve your body’s way of releasing toxins. In my professional opinion, MLD should be completed regularly to support your stressed out lymphatic system that works even when you are sleeping. 

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