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  • Writer's pictureMiracle Rehab Clinic

Physical Therapy for Lymphedema

Updated: Jul 12, 2023


Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a chronic long-term condition that causes excess fluid to collect in tissues and leads to swelling of body parts. It can significantly impact a person's quality of life, affecting mobility and emotional well-being.


Physical therapy for lymphedema plays a crucial role in managing and treating lymphedema. Today we'll explore how physical therapy can help individuals with lymphedema.


From specialized techniques like manual lymphatic drainage and compression therapy to exercise prescription, education, and emotional support, physical therapy aims to reduce swelling, improve function, and enhance the overall well-being of those with lymphedema.


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What Is Lymphedema?


Lymphedema is a chronic illness characterized by swelling body parts, typically the arms or legs, due to an accumulation of lymphatic fluid. It occurs when the lymphatic system, which is responsible for maintaining fluid balance and fighting infections, is impaired or damaged.

What Is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic system consists of a network of vessels and lymph nodes that carry lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Lymphedema can develop when there is an obstruction, damage, or dysfunction in this system, preventing the proper drainage of lymph fluid. This can occur as a result of various factors, including:


  • Primary lymphedema: This is a rare condition typically caused by a congenital abnormality of the lymphatic system. It may be present at birth or develop later in life.

  • Secondary lymphedema: This form of lymphedema is more common and occurs due to damage to the lymphatic system. The most common cause of secondary lymphedema is cancer treatment, such as surgery or radiation therapy, which can disrupt or remove lymph nodes. Infections, trauma, obesity, and certain medical conditions can also lead to secondary lymphedema.


If a person suspects they may have lymphedema or have concerns about it, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional who can evaluate your symptoms, provide an accurate diagnosis, and develop a suitable treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. One of the most effective ways to treat and manage the condition is physical therapy for lymphedema.


Signs and Symptoms of Lymphedema


The hallmark symptom of lymphedema is persistent swelling, which can range from mild to severe. Other symptoms may include a feeling of heaviness or tightness in the affected limb, decreased flexibility, discomfort or pain, recurring infections, and hardening or thickening of the skin.

Signs and Symptoms of Lymphedema

Lymphedema can significantly impact a person's quality of life, as it can limit mobility and cause emotional distress.


The signs and symptoms of lymphedema may vary depending on the severity and the underlying cause. The most common signs and symptoms include:


  • Persistent swelling: Lymphedema is characterized by swelling, generally in the arms or legs, but it can affect other body parts as well. The swelling may be mild initially and progress over time. It can range from subtle changes in size to significant enlargement of the affected limb.

  • Heaviness or tightness: People with lymphedema often experience a sensation of heaviness or tightness in the affected limb. This can make the limb feel uncomfortable and affect mobility.

  • Limited range of motion: The swelling and increased volume of the affected limb can restrict movement and flexibility. It may become challenging to bend or extend the limb fully.

  • Skin changes: Lymphedema can cause changes in the skin of the affected area. The skin may feel tight, thickened, or hardened. It may appear red, discolored, or shiny. In some cases, the skin may develop warty protrusions called papillomatosis or small blisters known as vesicles.

  • Recurring infections: Lymphedema impairs the body's ability to fight off infections, making the affected limb more prone to recurrent infections such as cellulitis. Signs of infection may include redness, warmth, increased swelling, pain, and fever.

  • Aching or discomfort: Some individuals with lymphedema may experience aching or discomfort in the affected limb, which can worsen with prolonged standing or sitting.


While there is currently no cure for lymphedema, it can be managed and controlled with appropriate treatment, including physical therapy for lymphedema.


Diagnosis of Lymphedema


Lymphedema symptoms can vary from person to person, and the progression of lymphedema can also differ. If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate management.

Diagnosis of Lymphedema

The diagnosis of lymphedema typically involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and, in some cases, additional tests.


Here's an overview of the diagnostic process for lymphedema.


  • Medical history: Your healthcare provider will begin by asking you about your medical history, including any previous surgeries, radiation therapy, or other treatments that may have affected your lymphatic system. They will also inquire about any symptoms you may be experiencing and their duration.

  • Physical examination: A thorough physical examination will focus on the affected limb or body part. The healthcare provider will assess the extent and characteristics of the swelling, check for skin changes, evaluate your range of motion, and look for signs of infection.

  • Differential diagnosis: The healthcare provider will rule out other possible causes of swelling, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), congestive heart failure, or kidney disease. This is done to ensure that the swelling is specifically related to lymphatic dysfunction.

  • Lymphedema staging: Lymphedema is often classified into stages based on the severity and progression of the condition. The staging may involve measuring and comparing the circumference of the affected limb at specific points using a tape measure.

  • Imaging tests: In some cases, a doctor may order imaging tests to assess the lymphatic system and rule out other potential causes. Imaging techniques such as lymphoscintigraphy or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide detailed images of the lymphatic vessels and identify any abnormalities.

  • Lymphatic function tests: Specialized tests, such as lymphoscintigraphy or indocyanine green lymphography, may be performed to evaluate the function and flow of the lymphatic system. These tests involve injecting a dye or radioactive tracer into the affected limb and tracking its movement through the lymphatic vessels.

  • Laboratory tests: Blood tests may be conducted to rule out other underlying conditions or to assess the overall health of the patient.


It is important to consult a healthcare professional with experience in diagnosing and managing lymphedema. They will consider your medical history, perform a comprehensive evaluation, and recommend appropriate tests to confirm the diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment for you. Lymphedema physical therapy treatment is one of the most common options.


How Can Physical Therapy Help?


Lymphedema physical therapy plays a vital role in the management and treatment of lymphedema. A lymphedema physical therapist with expertise in lymphedema management can provide personalized care and guidance.

How Can Physical Therapy Help With Lymphedema

Physical therapy for lymphedema is typically a long-term process, with regular visits to monitor progress, adjust treatment plans, and provide ongoing support. The overall goal is to reduce swelling, improve function and quality of life, and empower individuals to manage their lymphedema effectively.


Here are some ways in which physical therapy can help individuals with lymphedema:


  • Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD): MLD is a specialized massage technique performed by a trained therapist. It involves gentle, rhythmic movements that stimulate the flow of lymph fluid, helping to reduce swelling and promote drainage. MLD is typically one component of a comprehensive lymphedema treatment plan.

  • Compression therapy: Physical therapists can educate patients about the use of compression garments, such as bandages or compression sleeves. These garments apply external pressure to the affected limb, reducing swelling and promoting the movement of lymph fluid. Physical therapists can teach proper techniques for donning and doffing compression garments and ensure the right fit and level of compression.

  • Exercise prescription: Regular exercise has been shown to benefit individuals with lymphedema. Physical therapists can design individualized lymphedema physical therapy exercises programs that incorporate activities like aerobic exercises, resistance training, stretching, and range-of-motion exercises. These exercises can help improve circulation, increase muscle strength, enhance lymphatic flow, and maintain joint flexibility.

  • Education and self-care: Physical therapists provide education on self-care techniques to manage lymphedema. This may include skin care strategies, such as proper hygiene, moisturizing, and protection against cuts and infections. Therapists can also provide guidance on lymphedema precautions, such as avoiding extreme temperatures, trauma, or tight clothing that may impede lymphatic flow.

  • Therapeutic modalities: Therapists may use physical therapy lymphedema therapeutic modalities, such as low-level laser therapy or pneumatic compression devices, as adjunctive treatments to help reduce swelling and promote lymphatic flow. These modalities are often used in conjunction with other manual techniques and exercises.

  • Lifestyle modifications: Physical therapists can assist individuals with lymphedema in making necessary lifestyle modifications. This may involve recommendations for maintaining a healthy weight, adopting proper body mechanics to prevent injury, and providing guidance on maintaining an active lifestyle while managing lymphedema.

  • Emotional support: Living with lymphedema can have emotional and psychological impacts. Physical therapists often provide emotional support and create a supportive environment for individuals to discuss their concerns, fears, and challenges associated with lymphedema. They can provide reassurance, coping strategies, and resources for managing the emotional aspects of the condition.


The Importance of an Experienced Physical Therapist


Finding an experienced physical therapist for lymphedema treatment is important for several reasons.

The Importance of an Experienced Physical Therapist

An experienced physical therapist for lymphedema treatment brings specialized knowledge, individualized treatment plans, effective manual lymphatic drainage techniques, ongoing monitoring, and prevention of complications.


By seeking out their expertise, you can ensure that you receive the most appropriate and effective care for managing lymphedema.


  • Specialized Knowledge: Lymphedema is a chronic condition that requires specialized knowledge and understanding of the lymphatic system. An experienced physical therapist will have received specific training in lymphedema management, including assessment, treatment techniques, and risk reduction strategies. Their expertise ensures that you receive appropriate care tailored to your specific condition.

  • Individualized Treatment Plans: Each person's experience with lymphedema is unique, and an experienced physical therapist can develop an individualized treatment plan based on your specific needs and goals. They will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to assess your range of motion, strength, skin condition, and swelling severity. With their expertise, they can determine the most effective combination of treatments, such as manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, exercise, and skincare, to manage your condition optimally.

  • Effective Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD): MLD is a gentle massage technique that helps stimulate the lymphatic system to reduce swelling and improve fluid circulation. An experienced physical therapist will have refined their MLD skills through extensive practice and training, ensuring that they can provide effective treatment. They will know how to target specific areas and adjust the technique based on your response to the therapy.

  • Monitoring Progress and Adjusting Treatment: Lymphedema is a progressive condition, and its management requires ongoing monitoring and adjustment of treatment plans. An experienced physical therapist will regularly assess your progress, measure changes in swelling, and make necessary modifications to your treatment plan. They can also educate you about self-care techniques to help you manage your condition between therapy sessions.

  • Preventing Complications: Lymphedema can lead to various complications, such as skin infections, cellulitis, and impaired wound healing. An experienced physical therapist can help you prevent these complications by teaching you proper skin care techniques, providing guidance on infection prevention, and identifying any warning signs of potential issues. They can also educate you on lifestyle modifications and risk-reduction strategies to minimize the impact of lymphedema on your daily life.


Our team of board-certified physicians and licensed physical therapists here at Miracle Physical Therapy and Massage Center creates a personalized, comprehensive plan of care tailored to your specific needs and with total recovery in mind. Our professionals will develop a thorough understanding of your condition, analyze your physical data and establish the best rehabilitation program for you.


Frequently Asked Questions


-What is the role of physical therapy in the treatment of lymphedema?


Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the treatment of lymphedema. The primary goals of physical therapy in lymphedema management are to reduce swelling, improve function, enhance quality of life, and provide education and support to individuals with lymphedema.


It is important to note that the role of physical therapy may vary depending on the individual's specific condition, the stage of lymphedema, and the availability of specialized lymphedema management services. Collaborating with a skilled physical therapist experienced in lymphedema management can greatly contribute to the successful treatment and long-term management of lymphedema.


-What does physical therapy do for lymphedema?


Physical therapy for lymphedema involves techniques such as manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression therapy, exercise prescription, education on self-care, and emotional support. MLD helps reduce swelling and stimulate lymphatic flow, while compression therapy uses garments to manage swelling. Exercise programs enhance circulation and maintain flexibility. Education empowers patients to practice proper skin care and lymphedema precautions. Emotional support addresses the psychological impact of lymphedema. Physical therapy aims to decrease swelling, improve function, and enhance the quality of life for individuals with lymphedema through a comprehensive approach that includes treatment techniques, education, and support.


-Can exercise help with lymphedema? What types of exercises are recommended?


Yes, exercise can be beneficial for individuals with lymphedema. It helps improve lymphatic flow, reduce swelling, enhance muscle strength, and promote overall physical and emotional well-being. Recommended exercises often include low-impact aerobic activities like walking, swimming, and cycling, as they promote circulation without placing excessive strain on the affected limb. Resistance training can also be beneficial to strengthen muscles and support the lymphatic system. Stretching exercises help maintain joint flexibility. It's important to work with a physical therapist experienced in lymphedema management to develop an individualized exercise program that considers the individual's specific needs, stage of lymphedema, and any precautions.


-What are some exercise examples?


  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing exercises help promote lymphatic flow and circulation. To perform this exercise, sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise as you fill your lungs with air. Hold your breath briefly, then exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing your abdomen to fall. Repeat this breathing pattern for several minutes, focusing on deep, relaxed breaths.

  • Range of Motion Exercises: Range of motion exercises help maintain or improve joint mobility and reduce the risk of stiffness. Start with gentle movements and gradually increase the range of motion over time. You can perform exercises such as shoulder rolls, wrist circles, ankle pumps, and neck stretches. These exercises should be pain-free and performed within your comfortable range of motion.

  • Resistance Training: Resistance exercises can help improve muscle strength, which in turn supports lymphatic flow and reduces swelling. Begin light weights or resistance bands and gradually increase the intensity as tolerated. Some examples of resistance exercises include bicep curls, tricep extensions, leg presses, and seated rows. It's important to ensure proper form and avoid straining or holding your breath during the exercises.

Frequently Asked Questions about lymphedema

Final Thoughts


In conclusion, physical therapy plays a vital role in managing and treating lymphedema. Through techniques such as manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, exercise prescription, education, and emotional support, physical therapists help individuals reduce swelling, improve function, and enhance their quality of life.

The comprehensive approach of physical therapy addresses the physical and emotional aspects of lymphedema, empowering individuals to manage their condition actively. By working closely with a skilled physical therapist experienced in lymphedema management, individuals with lymphedema can find relief, regain mobility, and develop the necessary skills and knowledge to live well with this chronic condition.


Physical therapy offers valuable support and guidance on the journey toward better lymphedema management and overall well-being. Contact Miracle Rehab and get an appointment today.


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