Complete psysical therapy treatment of lymphedema
Consists of manual lymph drainage, compression therapy, skin care and instruction in exercises and self-treatment (1). The treatment is performed by physical therapists with special expertise.
The treatment may be extensive at the start. In cases of severe swelling one usually start with manual lymph drainage followed by bandaging of the arm/leg (1).
Manual Lymph Drainage
This is a kind of massage which requires guided training to perform optimally. The goal is to encourage the drainage of lymph fluid and thereby reduce the swelling of the tissue (2). It is quite different from other kinds of massage applied within physiotherapy. The anatomical conditions of the lymph system is the basis for manual lymph drainage. These are: the course of the large lymph veins, the borders of different lymphatic functional regions (watershed), natural anastomoses crossing these lines, and the lack of valves in the lymphatic vessels .
Bandaging is used mostly at the start of a treatment to reduce swelling. When the swelling is reduced a compression stocking is adjusted.
Clinical experience and research show that compression is the most important treatment. (3;4) Accordingly it is of great importance to adjust a compression stocking for the arm or leg. If there is swelling of the hand, a compression glove might help.
A compression stocking is used to increase tissue tension. The pressure from the stocking increases absorption of tissue fluid. The stocking provides a graded pressure highest distally and lowest proximally. To adjust the stocking, the circumference of the arm or leg is measured at several defined points. There are several compression classes, but the most commonly used are class 1 and 2. The stocking should provide a constant pressure without causing discomfort. It may take some time to get used to the compression stocking. Some choose to use the stocking occasionally, while others wear it daily.
A facemask at night is recommended to treat lymphedema in the neck and face region (5). Patiens with lymphedema in the groin can be helped by using a bike pant or a panty. Bandaging, tubigrip or bike pants may benefit if there is swelling of the penis and scrotum .
Intermittent pressure massage with pulsation
Treatment is carried out with an electronically powered apparatus which blows air in a double-walled cuff. The cuff, covering the whole arm or leg, has multiple channels and creates a peristaltic pressure wave in proximal direction. The treatment encourages the lymph drainage and thereby reduces the swelling (4).
1. The diagnosis and treatment of peripheral lymphedema. Consensus document of the International Society of Lymphology Executive Committee. Lymphology 2003;36:84-91.
2. McNeely ML, Peddle CJ, Yurick JL, Dayes IS, Mackey JR. Conservative and dietary interventions for cancer-related lymphedema: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Cancer 2010.
3. Badger C, Preston N, Seers K, Mortimer P. Physical therapies for reducing and controlling lymphedema of the limbs. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2004;CD003141.
4. Johansson K, Albertsson M, Ingvar C, Ekdahl C. Effects of compression bandaging with or without manual lymph draining treatment in patients with postoperative arm lymphedema. Lymphology 1999;32:103-110.
5. Deng J, Ridner SH, Murphy BA. Lymphedema in patients with head and neck cancer. 2011;38:1-10.