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What is “Lymphedema”? (Intro to the Lymphatic System)

Feb 22, 2020

Do you suffer from chronic swelling and/or lymphedema? If so, this first blog/video on the topic will help you understand what lymphedema is, as well as the purpose of your lymphatic system.

There are a variety of factors we need to consider when determining the underlying cause of chronic swelling and/or lymphedema, and it’s important to note that swelling and lymphedema aren’t quite the same thing. The difference between the two pertains to the underlying cause(s).

For example, lymphedema involves damage to the lymphatic system or obstruction of the movement of the lymph fluid, which we’ll discuss shortly. A common example is someone who’s undergone cancer treatment that involved surgery and radiation. During surgery, a section of lymph nodes were removed, and the subsequent radiation has resulted in scar tissue surrounding the lymph vessels.

On the other hand, swelling caused by issues with your heart or venous system will differ from lymphedema in terms of the underlying cause, which will require a different treatment technique. Common examples include “chronic venous insufficiency” and congestive heart failure (CHF).

For now, if you’re struggling with chronic swelling, let’s not worry too much about trying to figure out the underlying cause… It’s complicated to attempt to figure out on your own, and for many of our clients both the lymphatic and venous systems need to be addressed with treatment and long-term management.

So for now, just keep in mind that we do have specialized PTs who can help you figure things out and determine what successful treatment and management look like. Let’s now turn our attention to your lymphatic system…

“Lymphedema” and the Lymphatic System

Your lymphatic system is an integral part of your immune system and includes a network of lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph fluid, in addition to several organs (spleen, adenoids, tonsils and thymus). I like to think of the lymphatic system as the sewer system for your blood, designed to clear your system of waste products and foreign materials.

Other key functions of the lymphatic system include: draining excess fluids from the tissues, producing antibodies to help fight off infections, and absorbing fats from the digestive system. Sounds important, right? It is!

As your blood circulates throughout your body, a small amount of the fluid will travel outside the blood vessels to the lymph vessels. This lymph fluid will then work its way along the network of vessels, interact with white blood cells in the lymph nodes, and ultimately dump back into the venous system (back into your blood).

“Lymphedema” occurs when the system is either damaged (again, think of cancer surgery and radiation) or overloaded (too much demand on the system, like a congested highway).

For today, I just wanted to introduce this topic to you and help you appreciate the complexity of the situation. In the next blog/video, we’ll go into more detail about what causes chronic swelling and lymphedema. After that, we’ll discuss what successful treatment looks like.

And I want to make one last point before I go: a LOT of people suffer from chronic swelling and go untreated. I think a large reason people go untreated is simply because most healthcare professionals (myself and most PTs included) really don’t know what to do about it, which makes it easy to overlook. So for now, just know that there are PTs who specialize in helping you treat and manage this condition. I’ll explain in future posts!

Below is the video version of today’s blog, which includes a more detailed description of your lymphatic system…

Enjoy my drawings 😉

– Luke Gordon

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