Clinic Offers Relief for People Suffering the Physical and Emotional Anguish of Lymphedema

People who have undergone radiation for treatment of cancer obviously are relieved when the treatment is successful, but they can become concerned when they suffer an unexpected and uncomfortable consequence: one of their limbs starting to look a little larger than the other.

While many people might initially dismiss the condition as just a little swelling, it can become hard to ignore as one limb starts to outsize the other by as much as 50 percent. Sufferers are increasingly uncomfortable and even have difficulty shopping for clothes, but still they wonder: is it worth calling the doctor over just some "swelling?"

Such are the thoughts that plague people suffering from what is actually known as lymphedema, said Paula DuVal, physical therapist at University of New Mexico Hospital Rehab Services who has started a clinic to educate sufferers about the disease and help them treat and maintain it.

The lymphedema clinic is offered at UNMH Rehab Services, 1025 Medical Arts Ave. NE. Anyone who believes they might need treatment for lymphedema is encouraged to call 272-9020 for more information.

"There are many people who don't know that treatment is available, and that insurance will cover it," said DuVal.

Lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is not functioning correctly. The lymph system, responsible for transporting 10 percent of all cell waste, as well as supporting the body's immune system, may become damaged during surgery or radiation treatment for cancer. In particular, lymph nodes located near the armpits and groin may become damaged, causing fluid to back up in the arms or legs. Lymphedema resulting from such damage is known as secondary lymphedema.

Primary lymphedema stems from a congenital defect to the lymph system.

The effects of lymphedema can be devastating for example, DuVal treated a patient whose arm was 42 percent larger than the other. After four weeks of treatment, the arm size was reduced to 13 percent.

Lymphedema is treatable but not curable. At the clinic, patients can get treatment, known as Combined Decongestive Therapy, and help with long-term management of the disease. Treatment involves manual lymph drainage, compression bandaging and compression garments.

With manual lymph drainage, a specially trained therapist applies a light pressure technique to the swollen arm or leg designed to stimulate the lymphatic system, re-direct lymphatic flow, and break up any fibrosis that might be impeding flow. Compression bandages, which are low-stretch elastic wraps, are used after the manual lymph drainage treatment and also help reduce the swelling.

Daily treatment lasts three to four weeks, after which the patient wears a compression garment (which supports the skin and helps maintain the reduced limb size) during the day and bandages only at night.

Many people suffering from lymphedema don't seek treatment because they dismiss it as just a little swelling, DuVal said. Oftentimes, people are not aware that lymphedema is a possible side effect from their cancer treatment and the swelling may not appear for months or even years afterward.

Other people may assume that insurance will not cover treatment. In fact, DuVal said, most insurance plans cover not only the treatment but the supplies (bandages, garments) as well.

Contact: Lynn Melton, 272-3322

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