What is the lymphatic system and what does it do?
The lymphatic system is a network of very delicate vessels and clusters of bean shaped structures called lymph nodes. Large clusters of lymph nodes are found under the arms, and in the groin, neck, and abdomen. Lymph fluid travels in the lymph vessels and is filtered through the lymph nodes on its way towards the heart. Close to the heart, this clear fluid empties into the blood and is eliminated by the body. There are lymph vessels deep in the body tissue and very close to the skin. When healthy this delicate system is able to regulate fluid volume in our bodies.
The lymph system has three purposes:
to move proteins. The lymph system is responsible for moving protein out of the area under our skin. If the lymph system is sluggish, protein remains in the affected area under the skin. This protein attracts extra fluid into the area and swelling occurs.
to move fluid. The lymph system removes extra fluid from body tissues.
to identify substances that do not belong in our bodies and attack and destroy them. Lymph nodes fight infection. Infection is more common in people with poorly functioning lymph systems.
Am I at risk for lymphedema?
Anyone who has had cancer, undergone surgery, had a traumatic injury, or has problems with their veins is at an increased risk of developing lymphedema. Lymphedema occurs close to where the cancer, surgery, trauma or vein problem occurred. This area is called the AT RISK AREA.
Some people have poorly developed lymph systems and have a tendency to develop swelling.Factors that increase the risk of developing lymphedema include: obesity, recurring infections and prolonged immobility.
What are the sign and symptoms of lymphedema?
Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of lymphedema is very important. Lymphedema is best treated early. Please tell your doctor or nurse immediately if you have any of these symptoms:
- Your skin feels tight.
- Your clothing or jewelry feels tight.
- Numbness or tingling in your involved area
- Pain, aching, or heaviness in your involved area
It is important to watch for signs or symptoms of infection in the involved area. Contact your healthcare specialist immediately if any of these symptoms occur:
- The area feels warm or hot
- The area looks red or there is a rash
- You have a fever of at least 100.5 degrees F
- You have pain in the swollen area
- There is a sudden onset of or increase in swelling
Can I reduce my risk for lymphedema?
There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing lymphedema or to control its progression if it occurs. Good skin care is a must. Any crack or opening in the skin allows bacteria (germs) to enter. You should:
- Keep your skin clean and dry.
- Use a lanolin based lotion free of dyes and perfume after bathing. Apply lotion daily.
- Avoid cutting your cuticles or having manicures.
- Watch for any signs of increased redness or swelling that may suggest infection
- For patients with lymphedema of the legs, a podiatrist should cut your toenails as needed. Also look for athlete's foot fungus. See your doctor immediately for treatment.
You should protect the AT RISK AREA from injury:
- Never allow an injection to be given or blood to be drawn from the at risk area.
- Protect your at risk area: wear protective gloves for cleaning, washing dishes or gardening following breast cancer.
- Avoid exposing your body to extremes of temperature. Avoid saunas, hot tubs, and exposure to very hot or cold weather.
- Removing hair with extreme care or use an electric razor or hair removal lotion. Avoid injury to the area. Hair waxing should be avoided.
- Clean cuts or abrasions in the at risk area with soap and water immediately. Apply antibiotic ointment to even minor skin openings and cover with a latex free bandage.
- When outdoors use insect repellent to prevent bug bites.
- Wear at least an SPF-25 sunscreen on your at risk area when outdoors. Avoid becoming sunburned.
Avoid constriction to the AT RISK AREA
- Do not wear tight clothing or jewelry.
- Avoid stockings, shirts, pants and undergarments with tight elastic bands.
- Do not carry handbags, briefcases, or luggage if that arm is at risk.
- If your arm is at risk, have blood pressure checked on the other arm.