Recent research shows that compression is effective for lymphedema. This is good news, because there are a number of conditions that can cause lymphedema, including cancer, cancer treatments, certain surgeries, and infections.
The Lymphatic System
Your lymphatic system is a critical part of your immune system. The lymph running through it distributes proteins to your cells, and it collects cellular debris and bacteria. The fluid brings these wastes to the lymph nodes for filtering. Then the system repeats the process with clean lymph. When something happens to disable your lymph nodes, the lymph’s return can be blocked. It then accumulates — usually in an arm or leg — causing swelling, or lymphedema. This is why lymphedema so often appears after cancer. Treatments like surgery or radiation sometimes remove or destroy the lymph nodes.
The swelling from lymphedema can restrict range of motion. The condition itself can cause increased infections or a hardening of the skin. It gets more difficult to control as the condition advances, so most doctors will advise you to catch it early. Lymphedema that arises as a result of cancer treatment can take months or even years to show up, so cancer survivors need to be vigilant.
Compression for Lymphedema
Lymphedema is a set of symptoms rather than a disease. There’s no cure for it, but it can be managed. One way to help manage it is sequential gradient compression. You might think that compression would be bad for this kind of swelling. But it turns out that if you compress the swelling of lymphedema, it squeezes out the lymph, which then finds its way back into the system.
This is why a three-year study was able to report favorably in 2014 on intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC). The treatment “revealed durable permanent decrease of limb circumference and increased elasticity of tissues.” The study included 18 randomly selected patients with lymphedema of the legs, who each got 400 seconds of IPC daily for three years. The researchers described the physiology of compression: “IPC takes over the permanently missing function of the obliterated lymphatics by squeezing edema tissue fluid to the regions with normal lymphatic drainage.” In three years of treatment, the researchers detected no complications in leg tissue.
The researchers described the treatment: “8-chamber sleeve, sequential inflation of chambers to 100–120 mmHg for 50 sec.” That sounds a great deal like what we offer here at Peak as compression therapy with our RecoveryPump system.
Can You Prevent Lymphedema?
The patients in the 2014 study, having lymphedema stages II through IV, were all quite advanced in the condition, which makes the results reported all the more dramatic. There is a good description of the stages of lymphedema at BreastCancer.org. The earliest stage involves no swelling at all. This is known as stage 0, or latent lymphedema.
If you have lymphedema, you need to be under a doctor’s care. But if you’re waiting for symptoms to appear because you know your lymph nodes have been compromised, then I think there’s a good chance that frequent IPC might prevent or delay it. That is only my opinion, and I’m by no means a qualified medical professional. But it’s worth talking it over with your doctor. Then consider booking a few compression therapy sessions at Peak Recovery & Health Center.