Lymphoedema can start at different phases in life. It may be present before birth (congenital) or develop during puberty (praecox) or in middle age (lymphoedema tarda). It will usually go hand in hand with poor circulation and is caused by problems with the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that drain the clear lymph fluid from tissues and empties back in to the bloodstream. It plays an important role in the immune system.
Excess fluid and proteins in the tissues cause swelling and decrease the amount of oxygen available to the cells. Women who have had surgery and radiotherapy for breast cancer are particularly susceptible to lymphoedema of the arm.
There are other causes such as standing or sitting for long periods of time. this allows fluid to settle in the tissues of the lower leg. Muscular contractions are needed to help pump the lymph through it’s vessels. Hot weather can also cause water retention as the body tends to be less efficient at removing fluid from tissues when it is warm.
The condition is thought to affect an estimated 1.2 million people in the UK and up to 500 million world wide. Left untreated the condition can cause fibrosis (hardness).
Symptoms vary but usually the affected body part starts to swell and the skin feels tight. The area may ache and joints feel stiff, it can be accompanied with feelings of pins and needles. Rapid weight gain may also be an indicator.
A doctor may prescribe diuretic tablets to be taken on a daily basis and tests may be offered including a kidney function test, chest X-ray or an ECG. Water retention can be related to poor kidney function.
Manual Lymphatic drainage may be recommended and in extreme cases skin care techniques need to be used to avoid cutting the skin as there is a high risk of infection. This is due to the extra proteins and body heat providing an excellent breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. Special bandages similar to the ones for blood flow on aircraft are often used and medication may be given to reduce the protein level.
Tips to help combat lymphoedema
- Elevate feet when ever possible.
- Avoid excess salt.
- Regular walking, running and aerobic activity can help to improve circulation.
- Crossing legs and wearing tight clothing restrict blood and lymph flow.
- Avoid cigarettes and alcohol.
- Cranberry juice is an excellent natural diuretic.
- Drink six to eight glasses of water per day.
- Manual Lymphatic Drainage by gentle massage is an excellent way to improve drainage and reduce retention.