On March 6th, it is National Oreo Day in the U.S (the famous cookie was named on this day in 1912). March also means that there are only two more weeks until spring (I know I can’t wait). But globally it is recognized as World Lymphedema Day. 2023 marks the 8th World Lymphedema day but also the 25th anniversary of the Lymphedema Education and Research Network- the leading body for education, awareness and advocacy for lymphedema.
The lymphatic system is a key part of the immune system as it carries disease fighting white blood cells to the tissues that need them and helps to remove waste, toxins and other unwanted materials. When the vessels that carry lymph are blocked, lymph fluid cannot drain properly, leading to swelling known as lymphedema. Lymphedema can be primary (meaning that a person is born with it) or secondary (caused by infection, trauma or surgery). The severity of this disease varies from very mild complications to a disfiguring, painful and debilitating condition. In addition, if left untreated, the risk of infection of the tissue, known as cellulitis, is more common. If not corrected, cellulitis can lead to life threatening systemic infections. Hopefully with education it never comes to this.
Lymphedema signs and symptoms include: Swelling of part or all of the arm or leg, including fingers or toes; a feeling of heaviness or tightness; restricted range of motion; pain or discomfort; recurring infections; fibrosis (hardening and thickening of the skin).
There is no cure for lymphedema and medications offer little to no help (except perhaps to reduce pain). Although, there are things that can be done to help with symptoms:
- Light exercises recommended by a lymphedema expert can help to drain fluid and prepare muscles for everyday tasks
- Wraps with graduated compression (pressure highest away from the body and lowest closest to the body) encourage flow back to the body
- A Registered Massage Therapist (RMT) trained in a technique called ‘manual lymph drainage’ can also offer relief. As the husband of an RMT, I can attest to its benefits on the body and the soul
- Compression and Pneumatic sleeves when properly fitted can put pressure on the affected limb(s) forcing fluid back to the body
A healthy diet, stress reduction, daily exercise and adequate sleep can help a person cope with lymphedema. Educating yourself and others allows meaningful dialogue which helps someone to emotionally deal with this disease. Support groups (in person and/or online) provide a community of people who understand what you’re going through. As always, take care of yourselves and each other.