Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause of lymphedema in the United States. Worldwide, it most often occurs due to filariasis (a parasite infection). Experts have called lymphedema “one of the most poorly understood, relatively underestimated, and least researched complications of cancer or its treatment.” (1, 2) There are other possible causes of primary lymphedema, including obesity and postoperative weight gain. (3)
What is it exactly? Lymphedema is a condition resulting from impaired flow of the lymphatic system. You can often recognize someone is struggling with lymphedema if a part or all of their entire arm or leg, including the fingers and toes, are visually very swollen.
Is lymphedema dangerous? Left untreated, it can result in frequent infections, irreversible changes to the skin, decreased mobility of the affected limb(s) and an overall worse quality of life. (4)
Can anything help this condition? There’s actually a great deal of overlap between conventional and natural lymphedema treatment, including straight forward yet majorly impactful recommendations including regular exercise, deep breathing and a healing whole foods diet.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema, also known as lympheodema, is an accumulation of lymph fluid in the soft tissues, most often occurring in the arms or legs. It is typically a chronic condition. Another lymphedema definition: an incurable but treatable medical condition caused by injury, trauma or congenital defects in the lymphatic system. (5)
Under normal circumstances, protein-rich lymph fluid is filtered by the lymph nodes (small structures located throughout our bodies) and then it’s released into the bloodstream. When the body cannot properly carry lymph fluid because lymph nodes are obstructed, the liquid collects and tissues begin to swell. This is what occurs during a case of lymphedema — the lymph vessels are unable to sufficiently drain the lymph fluid.
Lymphedema can be either primary, meaning it occurs on its own, or it can secondary, which means it is being caused by another disease or condition. Secondary lymphedema is a lot more common than primary.
Can lymphedema be fatal? What exactly is the prognosis for this condition? No cure exists for lymphedema, but it can be managed. Chronic edema that continues for many years is associated with an increased risk of developing a rare type of cancer called lymphangiosarcoma. (1)
Don’t confuse lymphedema with lymphoma. Even though the names sound similar, lymphoma is completely different. Lymphoma is a group of cancers (including Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and Hodgkin lymphoma) that affect white blood cells that help fight infection.
Signs & Symptoms
Lymphedema symptoms, which typically occur in the arm and/or leg, include: (6)
- Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers and toes
- A feeling of heaviness or tightness
- Discomfort or aching
- Restricted range of motion
- Recurring infections (such as lymphangitis or cellulitis)
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
Swelling can vary from mild with hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to severe changes that make use of the limb difficult.
Lymphedema can also occur in the trunk of the body in addition to the limbs. Lymphedema in the trunk area is often caused by radiation therapy to the chest wall that leads to peripheral edema, which often occurs in irradiated breast for breast cancer patients. (2)
Causes & Risk Factors
How do you get lymphedema? There are several different primary and secondary lymphedema causes.
- Surgery: Removal of or injury to lymph vessels and lymph nodes in legs, arms or any area of the body may result in lymphedema. Example: lymph nodes that are removed to check for the spread of breast cancer.
- Radiation treatment for cancer: Radiation can result in scarring and inflammation of your lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Lymphedema resulting from cancer treatment may not show up until months or even years after treatment has ended.
- Cancer: If cancer cells block lymphatic vessels, lymphedema may result. For instance, a tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel could enlarge enough to hinder lymph fluid flow.
- Infection: An infection of the lymph nodes or parasites can restrict the flow of lymph fluid. Infection-related lymphedema is most often seen in tropical and subtropical regions and is more likely to occur in developing countries.
- Obesity: Obesity-induced lymphedema of the lower extremities is known to occur, especially once a patient’s body mass index (BMI) exceeds 50. Obesity and postoperative weight gain are significant risk factors for the development of lymphedema.
- Rheumatological disorders: Some studies have noted that lymphedema is seen more often in patients with rheumatoid disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Primary lymphedema is rare and is an inherited condition caused by issues with lymph vessel development in your body. Specific causes of primary lymphedema include: (6)
- Milroy’s disease (congenital lymphedema): This disorder begins in infancy and causes lymph nodes to form abnormally.
- Meige’s disease (lymphedema praecox): This disorder often causes lymphedema around puberty or during pregnancy, though it can occur later, until age 35.
- Late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda): This occurs rarely and usually begins after age 35.
To make a lymphedema diagnosis, your doctor will want to know about your medical history, including if you’ve had recent cancer surgery. A diagnosis can sometimes be made from your symptoms alone. Other times additional testing may be required, including a lymphoscintigraphy, which is a scan that can detect blockages or missing lymph vessels. Other tests may include a CT scan, MRI and ultrasound.
How do you treat lymphedema in legs? There are several ways to treat lymphedema in the legs, arms and other areas of the body. The aim of treatment is to manage the swelling and any other secondary health issues that result from it.
Conventional treatment of lymphedema often includes:
- Pressure garments
- Skin care
- Compression devices
- Weight loss
- Laser therapy
- Drug therapy
- Massage therapy
- Combined lymphedema therapy
7 Natural Ways to Manage Lymphedema Symptoms
Massage therapy can be helpful to so many health conditions, including lymphedema. It’s best to see a certified massage therapist that knows how to massage your body in a light manner that assists in moving lymph fluid from the swollen areas into other places where your lymph system is still working properly. It’s also a great idea to learn how to do self-massage to encourage healthy lymphatic fluid flow and a reduction of swelling. (9)
Most experts recommend moderate exercise regularly for people struggling with lymphedema. Aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming can really help to move lymph fluid out of your problem areas and lower the swelling. Talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program. He or she will likely advise wearing some pressure garments while working out.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Breast cancer survivors should begin with light upper-body exercise and increase it slowly. Some studies with breast cancer survivors show that upper-body exercise is safe in women who have or are at risk for lymphedema. Weight-lifting that is slowly increased may keep swelling from getting worse.” The Institute advises that exercise should begin at a very low level, increased gradually over time, and be conducted under the care of a lymphedema therapist. If you stop exercising for a week or longer, you should again start off at a low level and increase activity gradually. (10)
3. Practice Healthy Skincare
Healthy skincare is very important with lymphedema since you are prone to skin infections. Since you have fluid being trapped in your tissues, it’s easier for bacteria to grow, flourish and cause infections.
Keep your skin, hair and nails clean using natural cosmetic products. You should also keep your skin well moisturized using healthy moisturizers like coconut oil and shea butter. Avoid bathing or showering in hot water. Use a natural sunscreen when outdoors to avoid sunburn. Always wear gloves when gardening or doing other work outside to protect your skin.
You also don’t want to forget about your feet and toes! Keep them clean and dry and wear breathable cotton socks. (11) See a podiatrist if you suspect you have an ingrown toenail since they can often cause an infection.
4. Don’t Block Fluid Flow
It’s very important to keep your body fluids moving as optimally as possible, particularly in an affected limb or in areas where lymphedema may potentially develop.
Ways to encourage healthy bodily fluid flow: (11)
- Don’t cross your legs while sitting (not good for swollen legs — or any legs for that matter — because it discourages healthy circulation).
- Aim to alter your sitting position at least every 30 minutes.
- Don’t carry bags or other items on the affected arm.
- Opt for loose clothing with no tight bands or elastic.
- Wear only loose jewelry.
- Don’t use a blood pressure cuff on the affected arm.
- Refrain from using elastic bandages or stockings with tight bands.
5. Take Deep Breaths
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, deep breathing helps to stimulate the movement of lymph fluid in the body. They advise not taking more than three deep breaths at a time to avoid light-headedness. (12)
6. Manage Obesity
If obesity is the cause of your lymphedema, you’ll want to check out these three steps to treat obesity naturally. It’s absolutely essential to eat a healthy whole foods diet and avoid foods that contribute to obesity, including refined sugar, refined flours, sweetened beverages, processed foods, fast food and foods containing trans and hydrogenated fats. You may want to seriously consider a ketogenic diet to help with your weight loss goals. (13) Of course, regular exercise is another key habit to incorporate into your life if you want to recover from and prevent obesity.
7. Eat Right
As usual, what you eat and don’t eat can really help you to manage a health condition like lymphedema. Focus your diet on whole foods, especially anti-inflammatory foods, which means lots of vegetables and some fruits daily. You definitely want to limit high-sodium, processed foods since these foods will only contribute to more fluid retention and swelling. (14)
If you have persistent swelling in your arm, leg or any other area of your body, you should see your doctor. If you have already been diagnosed with lymphedema, visit your doctor if there is a sudden dramatic increase in the size of the affected area. (10)
Also contact your doctor right away if you have signs of an infection, including redness, pain, swelling, heat, fever or red streaks below the surface of the skin.
- Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymph fluid in the soft tissues, most often occurring in the arms or legs.
- This condition can have a primary genetic cause, or it can have a secondary cause, including cancer treatment, obesity or infection.
- Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause in the United States, while worldwide it most often occurs due to filariasis (a parasite infection).
- There is currently no cure, but it can be managed.
- There is a great deal of overlap between conventional and natural management of symptoms.
- Natural ways to manage lymphedema symptoms include massage, exercise, healthy skincare, not blocking lymph flow (no crossing those legs!), deep breathing, overcoming obesity and following a healing foods diet with plenty of anti-inflammatory choices.
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