A cancer patient receives lymphedema treatment at physical therapy

Lymphedema Awareness Month: Understanding and managing lymphedema


What is lymphedema and what does it mean for my cancer diagnosis? 

To understand lymphedema and to honor Lymphedema Awareness Month, we first need to understand the Lymphatic System.  Most people have heard of the Circulatory System, which consists of the heart, arteries, and veins. The lesser known Lymphatic System is a one-way system of vessels, which runs parallel to the blood vessels, starting in the tissue spaces throughout the body (skin, muscle, organs, etc.) and ending at large veins close to the heart. 

Understanding the Lymphatic System

The two main purposes of the Lymphatic System are:

  1. To protect the body against infections and disease
  2. To drain excess fluid from the body’s tissue spaces

This tissue fluid is a result of a natural process where blood plasma (a nutritious water) leaves the blood capillaries and enters the tissue spaces to provide healthy nutrients for the cells of the body. The body cells take in nutrition and give off what they no longer need (i.e. “waste products”).

The lymphatic capillaries start here, in the tissue spaces. These small vessels have big, swinging doors that open up to receive the surplus water and waste products. The lymph capillaries also pick up blood proteins that are too large to be reabsorbed by the blood vessels.

On the way to the heart, the lymph vessels travel to regional lymph nodes that filter this watery mixture (lymph). While in the lymph nodes, larger waste material is broken up into smaller particles and anything potentially harmful to the body, such as microbials, are attacked to minimize infection or health issues.

This now more concentrated and “clean” lymph continues flowing towards the center of the body where it eventually returns back into the blood stream.  This process is similar to the underground pipes of a working water fountain that carry water from the bottom of the fountain back up to the top.

Disruptions in the Lymphatic System

When there is a disruption of the lymphatic system, such as complications from a cancer diagnosis, the ability for lymph to flow out of a particular area may be diminished.  This can lead to a backup of lymph fluid in the tissue spaces of the skin with a gradual build-up of cellular waste products and large blood proteins.  This accumulation of fluid is known as lymphedema and can occur in an arm, leg, breast, trunk, or genitals in the damaged territory.

The good news is that you can lower your risk of lymphedema by:

  1. Managing how much blood flows into the involved area
  2. Promoting good lymph flow out of the involved area

Helpful activities include to manage blood and lymph flow include:

  • Good skin care to protect against infections
  • Gentle range of motion exercises for the head, body, arms, and legs
  • Elevation of the involved arm or leg
  • Gentle stroking the limb from the hand or foot towards the heart throughout the day

If you would like to learn how to better protect yourself or you believe you may have lymphedema, talk to your doctor about a Physical Therapy consult.  You may also contact Provision Physical Therapy directly at 865-232-1415.