OSF St. Anthony rehabilitation services offers Lymphedema Treatment program

OSF St. Anthony rehabilitation services offers Lymphedema Treatment program


It’s quite a victory to defeat breast cancer. Then perhaps weeks or months, sometimes even years, following surgery or radiation, the patient notices that she can’t put her bracelet on her wrist. Rings that once fit no longer do. Dressing becomes continually more challenging as one arm becomes so swollen that sleeves won’t fit. There is increasing tightness in the skin, decreasing flexibility in her arm, wrist or hand and painful swelling that leaves her prone to skin infection (cellulitis).

What the patient is experiencing is lymphedema, an abnormal swelling of a body part, most often in the extremities, caused by an accumulation of the lymphatic fluid. Part of the immune system, lymph vessels channel important fluids around the body. When lymph nodes are removed or damaged by biopsy, surgery, radiation or trauma, the lymph fluid builds up, causing swelling.

Although often associated with treatment for breast cancer, lymphedema can also affect men, particularly those who have undergone treatment for prostate cancer, as well as patients who have experienced a trauma to the abdomen or have received treatment for colon cancer. In approximately 1 percent of the cases, the lymphedema is classified as primary, meaning that the cause is generally unknown and cannot be linked to any significant traumatic event. In secondary lymphedema, the cause is known, often from cancer treatments, lymph node sampling for biopsies or long-term venous disease, such as varicose veins.

In the past, the medical community seemed to view lymphedema as a regrettable but unpreventable side effect of cancer treatment. That perception is changing as approximately 32 percent of women who undergo treatment for breast cancer develop lymphedema.

Recognizing the impact that lymphedema can have on a patient’s quality of life, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center outpatient rehabilitation services offers a Lymphedema Program provided by specially trained physical therapists.

“In the past, lymphedema was not looked on as treatable,” explain Terra Anderson, PT, and Lena Salve, PT, physical therapist at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center who have received specialized training in lymphedema management. “Our goal is to reduce lymphedema and prevent future complications.”

The physical therapists note that the majority of their patients have secondary lymphedema in which the swelling has been caused by surgery or trauma. “Be aware, though,” added Anderson, “that some swelling following surgery is expected. Acute edema post surgery goes away, often with elevation; by contrast, lymphedema is persistent.”

The therapists in the Lymphedema Program at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center use Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) for the treatment and management of lymphedema. Included in CDT are Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), compression therapy, exercise and skin care.

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