Lymphoedema is a complex condition that can have many causes. Often, lymphoedema evolves over time so your strategies may need to change. It can be a real impediment to live with, but there are ways of minimising its effects on your life. With some simple guidelines, life can be pretty much normal.
But first, a little background.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is a series of small vessels that branch out through your body – almost a ‘shadow’ version of your blood vessels, if you like – with particular concentration points or ‘nodes’ (glands) in many areas, such as the armpits, the groin, the throat, as well as in some organs. The main job of the lymphatic system is to remove bacteria and damaged cells, as well as to fight infection. It does this by moving a colourless liquid called ‘lymph’ around the body. This liquid is filtered by the lymph glands then fed back into the larger lymphatic vessels, and ultimately back into the blood stream. This liquid also contains lymphocytes, which form the basis of your immune system.
What is lymphoedema?
Primary lymphoedema is rare, congenital condition that is not covered in this article.
Secondary lymphoedema is most often caused by surgery involving the removal of some lymph nodes (most notably, cancer surgery), by radiation, or by trauma (damage) to a part of the body. If the lymph glands or vessels are damaged or removed, it compromises the lymphatic system in that part of the body. This can cause lymphatic fluid to build up, instead of being filtered and removed by the lymphatic system in the normal way. It can also cause heaviness and aching in your legs.
Usually, lymphoedema occurs in the arms or the legs, but it can occur in other parts of the body. A common scenario is having the lymph glands removed from the armpit during breast cancer surgery, or from the groin in gynaecological cancer or prostate cancer surgery. Even one or two missing lymph nodes can present a life-long challenge in keeping your legs healthy and attractive.
When Is It Wise To Start Managing Lymphoedema?
Definitely, before it happens! In other words, as soon as you’ve had the surgery or the trauma.
The phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’ has never found a more appropriate topic because by the time you have lymphoedema, your body is already compromised, and it may be difficult to reverse. Sadly, many cancer surgeons simply tell you that they’re going to remove some lymph nodes. They don’t provide guidance as to what that can mean in the long term, or how best to manage it.
So, here are some helpful guidelines that actually work.
10 Steps To Managing Lymphoedema In The Legs
1. Keep your weight down, preferably to a slim build. Any additional weight equates to additional stress on your lymphatic system, increasing the likelihood that your legs may start to swell. Remember, your legs don’t have the circulation of a normal person so don’t make them work harder than they have to.
2. Avoid carrying heavy loads. This means being smart with your supermarket shopping or when carrying small children. As with any injury, there are ways to adjust your daily routine so that you’re not adding any extra payload to your legs.
3. Avoid rigorous exercise and huge amounts of stairs. Excessive stimulation of the lymphatic fluid in your legs is not a good idea, as you’re missing some of the essential tools to remove it afterwards (the missing lymph nodes, remember?). The fluid you will be stirring up has nowhere to go. Keep to moderate walking and/or gentle exercise.
4. Take up swimming. It’s hands down the best ever exercise for two reasons: (1) the pressure of deep water acts like a compression garment on your legs and (2) the gentle action of swimming stimulates your whole lymphatic system, encouraging any excess fluid to move from your body. You’ll know this is happening when you need to empty your bladder more than usual in the hours afterwards. Try it and see!
5. Take up Pilates. The deep, slow breathing involved in each movement, as well as the fact that most of movements are performed in a lying position, will help the lymphatic system to work more effectively. Breath and movement are key factors in managing lymphoedema, in any part of the body.
6. See a trained, qualified lymphoedema therapist on a regular basis. Lymphatic drainage massage looks deceptively light and simple, but it’s based on a deep understanding of how the lymphatic system works. Done in the wrong way or the wrong order, a massage can add to fluid build-up instead of removing it.
7. Wear medical compression stockings as much as possible during the day, particularly if you spend long amounts of time sitting or standing. These can be really challenging during hot weather, and you may simply have to make compromises with yourself from time to time. They are, however, your best insurance policy in the long run. Medical compression stockings can be purchased through qualified lymphoedema therapists and certain orthopaedic specialists, and they need to be individually fitted.
8. Whenever you can, keep your feet elevated (for example, when watching TV or reading). Lying down in the afternoon for at least 30 minutes is great if you can manageit, as a compromised lymphatic system works best when the body is completely flat and relaxed.
9. Stay well hydrated with clean, filtered water and keep your legs moisturised. Dryness and cracking can cause infections to occur, as can any cut or abrasion on the legs. Stay super vigilant as your legs don’t have the infection-fighting capabilities of normal legs.
10. Avoid heat from the sun or from hot showers. Baths, in particular, are a really bad idea. However, the dark heat from far infrared saunas penetrates deep into the lymphatic system and actually helps encourage lymphatic drainage, but only if you are lying down in the sauna. Sitting in a sauna will just cause the fluid to accumulate in your legs, as your lymphatic system will be fighting gravity. Lying down works with the lymphatic system instead of against it. It’s important to have a cold shower immediately afterwards (at least on your legs) in order to help the lymphatic vessels contract again after the heat exposure.
These simple guidelines will help you manage what could otherwise be a very unpleasant condition.
(Note: While every attempt has been made to provide accurate information, the above are general guidelines only. Lymphoedema is a serious medical condition, and SunDynamica Portable Far Infrared Saunas may not be appropriate for everyone. We recommend that you speak to your medical professional in order to make a decision as to whether this product is suitable for you.)