Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid that causes swelling in the arms and legs. Edema occurs when venous or lymphatic vessels or both are impaired. When the impairment is so great that the lymph fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein fluid collects in the tissues of the extremity. This can interfere with wound healing and can result in various infections.
While damage to the lymph system can be long-term or even irreversible, the symptoms brought on by lymphedema are now treatable, thanks to modern antibiotics and special rehabilitation techniques developed in recent years. The Rehabilitation Department at Ministry Saint Michael’s Hospital is a regional center for lymphedema therapy, servicing patients from communities throughout central Wisconsin.
The patient may be referred to an occupational therapist at Ministry Saint Michael’s Hospital who is specially trained in techniques that aim to lessen the swelling. This unique treatment uses these techniques: Compression wraps, compression garments, massage and Sequential gradient pumping.
Compression and Massage - Compression is applied to the limb to reduce the swelling. It may be applied by using multi-layer compression wraps often followed by the use of compression stockings or sleeves. A special therapeutic massage may also be performed, focusing on gently massaging connective tissue (not muscle tissue as with traditional massage) with a pumping motion. This stimulates the weakened lymphatic system by pushing the stagnant fluid through the vessels, allowing the venous system to reabsorb the fluid and helping to develop collateral channels through which the lymph can begin to flow.
Sequential Gradient Pumping – A sequential gradient pump, distributespressure through overlapping air compartments constructed in a special appliance that envelopes the limb. The compartments inflate sequentially, causing the lymphatic fluid to circulate out of the affected limb, thereby reducing the swelling.
Michelle Newman, OTR, CHT
Loretta Ferg, OTR, CHT