Q. I’ve just been diagnosed with lymphedema. What are the treatments like?
A. Depending on the seriousness of your case, treatments can range from a simple hand massage, exercises, and instructions to keep your arm elevated for a portion of each day; to daily hours-long treatments for several weeks, followed by wearing a wrist to shoulder elastic sleeve, potentially for life. In other words: HUGE possible range of treatments. You won’t know what YOUR treatment will be like till you see the physical therapist or lymphedema therapist for the first time. However, you can hazard a guess, based on how much swelling you see and feel in your arm/chest area: the greater the swelling, the more advanced the lymphedema probably is, the longer-lasting the treatment will be.
Q. So, let’s take a middle-of-the-road scenario, just as an example. What might that look like?
A. At your first visit, the PT will measure both arms very carefully, taking their circumference every few inches from wrist to shoulder. He or she will also look at your back, chest, and under your arms on both sides, to see how different one side looks than the other; and examine both hands, for the same reason. Not only does all this measuring give you both an idea of how swelled one side is compared to “normal” (the other side), but it gives you a benchmark so you can measure how much the swelling goes down as you go through treatment.
For moderate swelling, you’ll probably be treated to a “waist up” massage that involves undressing, and lying under a light sheet while the therapist very gently strokes your hands, arms, chest, and back. Called “decongestive therapy,” this gentle stroking helps get the lymph fluid moving, rather than pooling in your arm or chest, which is what causes the swelling. And boy oh boy, isn’t it relaxing! You’ll think you’re at a spa. Again, depending on the severity of your case, you may come for therapy every other day, or even 5 days a week for several weeks; each treatment will take upwards of an hour or so.