The lymphatic system and lymphedema

Published - Nov 25, 2020

Written by: Ann Fox, PT, MSPT, CERT. MDT, CLT, CMP, VRS

I will bet that you did not know that you have a magical fluid clean-up crew under your skin! I have been a certified lymphedema therapist for almost 15 years, and I commonly get the question; “What does the lymphatic system do and what is lymphedema?”

Here is a brief anatomy lesson - our lymphatic system is a part of our circulatory system. We often think of our circulatory system as being comprised of blood and blood vessels. The lymphatic system works side by side with our blood system by removing excess fluid, blood proteins and cells that are left behind within our tissue. The lymph vessels carry this lymph fluid from the tissues back to the circulation system.

The lymphatic system also contains lymph nodes. The two main functions of the lymph nodes are to produce white blood cells and to filter the lymph fluid of dead cells and waste material, including bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. We have as many as 700 to 900 lymph nodes in our body. Our lymphatic system helps to keep our body healthy by maintaining fluid balance, nourishing our tissues, removing waste and acting as an essential part of our immune system.


What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a chronic condition in which the lymph vessels are obstructed or not functioning properly. Commonly, people may develop lymphedema following lymph node removal conducted as a part of their cancer treatment. Some people have a genetic condition in which lymph vessels are defective. Others may develop lymphedema in conjunction with other diseases, such as chronic venous insufficiency or lipedema. Surgery can also be a cause of this condition. Lymphedema causes the lymphatic system to become overloaded, causing swelling in an arm or leg. Because the swelling is protein-rich, the skin becomes dry and pitting. Consistent swelling of a limb can result in easy bruising, poor healing and in some cases, infection (cellulitis). 

Currently, there is no cure for lymphedema. However, physical therapists who are certified in lymphedema therapy can help patients manage this chronic condition. Treatment strategies incorporate complete decongestive therapy, a comprehensive approach including:

  • Manual lymph drainage; a specialized massage that stimulates the intact lymphatic system to move lymph fluid away from the swollen limb.
  • Compression techniques; special bandages and/or compression garments to help reduce swelling and improve skin quality.
  • Exercises to assist in the reduction of swelling and the maintenance of healthy and active muscles and tissues.
  • Skin care strategies to minimize infection.

 IRG offers lymphedema treatment provided by our certified lymphedema specialists.