Lymphedema is a disease that causes swelling in areas adjacent to lymph nodes, such as the arms and legs. Normally, lymph fluid flows through the lymph nodes, where toxins and waste are filtered out. If the lymph node is blocked or missing, fluid accumulates near it and causes severe swelling.
While this is something that can be hereditary or have an uncommon source, it is most often caused directly by cancer or by cancer treatment. Sometimes, a tumor will block the lymphatic pathway. Sometimes, radiation or chemotherapy will cause the lymph node to stop working well enough to allow the lymph fluid through.
For those with cancer near lymph nodes that needs to be surgically removed, it is common that the lymph node itself must be removed as well. This is very common in breast cancer, where the affected breast tissue and closest lymph node are removed in order to prevent the cancer from spreading.
Often, the result is lymphedema in only one limb. Lymphedema has varying levels of severity, but it is almost always debilitating in some way. The first line of treatment for this disease is a combination of physical therapy exercises and medication. Some patients see a physical therapist regularly, but many simply do the exercises at home.
Exercise for lymphedema consists of simple movements aimed to increase the flow of lymph fluid, maintain muscle mass, and improve the range of motion in the limb. Another type of treatment is a compression garment, which help get the lymph fluid moving and reduce swelling. Often, the swelling naturally decreases over time.
Some patients have chronic lymphedema, and/or have not responded well to these treatments. In these cases, surgery is an option. One of the most effective types of surgical treatment for lymphedema is liposuction. It is usually a cosmetic procedure, but in the case of lymphedema it can be medically necessary.
Those with severe swelling are sometimes unable to fit into their normal clothing or move their limb enough to function normally.
Liposuction is a procedure that removes excess fat from the body. While the swelling caused by lymphedema is due to a buildup of lymph fluid, it worsens because the affected area also accumulates fat. This is why liposuction is helpful; it removes much of the dispensable tissue and drastically reduces the swelling.
Wearing compression garments frequently post-liposuction helps keep the swelling from returning. Liposuction does not cure the lymphedema, but it greatly improves the patient’s quality of life overall.