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Healthy Aging Tips from Sit and Be Fit's Mary Ann Wilson RN
By Mary Ann Wilson, RN

When the lymphatic system is compromised a condition called lymphedema occurs. First of all, let’s take a look at the role that the lymphatic system plays in maintaining good health. 

What is the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system is part of our circulatory and immune systems. It is a network that runs throughout the entire body.  The main function of the lymphatic system is to act as a cleansing system, flushing out toxins.

Lymphatic circulation is different from the circulatory system which includes the heart and blood vessels. The lymphatic system consists of:

  1. the lymph – a syrupy, protein-rich, fluid that passes through the lymphatic vessels.
  2. the lymphatic vessels – remove excess fluid and proteins from the spaces between the body’s cells and return them to the blood circulatory system
  3. the lymph nodes – filter stations that lie along the lymphatic vessels – found in greater numbers in the neck, armpit, groin, front of the elbow, and behind the knee

In addition to its filtering function, lymph nodes produce white blood cells. As you probably know, white blood cells support the immune system and help fight infections. Up to eight liters of lymph fluid is filtered each day as part of this normal process.

The two main functions of the lymphatic system:
  • the removal of waste products and potentially harmful bacteria and other germs.
  • the production of the white blood cells that combat bacterial and viral infections, (lymphocytes)

What Happens When the Lymphatic System is Compromised?

What happens when the lymphatic system grows sluggish and the lymph vessels aren’t able to carry away these toxins? A condition called lymphedema occurs. Approximately 10 million people in the United States are currently managing this condition.

Lymphedema comes from two words: lymph, a natural body fluid, and edema, meaning swelling. This is not the same as swelling seen with injury, arthritis, fluid retention, or vascular problems. Instead, lymphedema is a chronic condition in which an arm or a leg swells due to interruption of the normal lymphatic circulation.

Why Does Lymphedema Occur?

Lymphedema may be present at birth, or occur following surgery, radiation treatment, or after an accident. 

If the lymphatic vessels are damaged, they lose their effectiveness in returning the lymph to the bloodstream. Tissues are deprived of the supply of nutrients brought by the circulatory system. Consequently, they cannot get rid of their metabolic waste. Furthermore, the skin loses its normal elasticity and hardens. As a result, fluid and protein accumulate in the tissues, causing chronic swelling, especially in the legs and arms. 

Likewise, the immune response may be impaired due to lymph node damage.  Lymph fluid may ooze through the skin, altering its acidity (pH). These factors create an environment ripe for infections and skin ulcerations. Pain may vary from a feeling of heaviness in the arm or leg to being constant and severe.

Breast Cancer and Lymphedema

It is estimated that over three million women who currently have breast cancer will develop lymphedema. The onset of lymphedema for breast cancer survivors may be sudden, occurring immediately after cancer treatment, or it may develop years later.

It is not known which women who have had breast cancer will develop this disorder.  We do know that lymph node removal and radiation therapy increases the risk for lymphedema. There does not seem to be a higher correlation between lymphedema and a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.

Treatment for Lymphedema

While there is no cure for lymphedema; prevention and proper management are extremely important. Because the condition may worsen over time if ignored, it’s important to seek treatment right away. A lymphedema specialist is an essential part of the healthcare team. Treatment may include:

  • specialized gentle massage to re-route fluid – IMPORTANT NOTE: Avoid massage or stimulating lymph flow if experiencing inflammation, infection, congestive heart failure, illness 
  • fitting for compression garments
  • prescription for exercise
  • lifestyle recommendations such as reducing sedentary behavior, reducing stress, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight. 

Keep the Lymphatic System Strong

Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy lymphatic system.

  • Adopt a healthy active lifestyle and increase circulation by exercising and avoiding long periods of sitting.
  • Reduce inflammation in your diet by avoiding gluten, white flour, sugar, processed and fried foods, excess dairy, and pesticides.
  • Reduce inflammation from environmental exposure to toxins, including tobacco.
  • Focus on good gut health by including lots of fiber, probiotics, prebiotics, and enzymes.
  • Preventative measures are a lifelong necessity to prevent/manage lymphedema. In addition to adaptation of a healthy lifestyle, specifics for the involved arm or leg include:

-Modification of daily tasks to prevent even minor injury.
-Avoidance of tight or restrictive clothing.
-Avoidance of undue pressure or strain.
-Aggressive treatment of any signs or symptoms of lymphedema or injury.
-Moisturize the skin with a quality pH-balanced lotion, such as Nivea or Eucerin.

Check out these YouTube video segments from the Sit and Be Fit Lymphatic Health DVD:

Related Blogs:

Lymphatic Self-Massage Exercises

Exercises for Lymphedema

Recommended DVDs:

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for the information you provided about lymphedema and how to deal with it. I love how you suggest maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a lot of exercise to increase your circulation. I think it would also be smart to find a reliable vein center that can treat lymphedema professionally.

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