Lymphedema is swelling that's caused by a backup of lymph fluid, and it can appear in your arms, legs, breast, chest wall, trunk or groin.
Lymph fluid circulates in your body through lymph vessels that are similar to blood vessels. It's filtered through lymph nodes — small structures that are clustered in your neck, underarm, groin and abdomen. When lymph can't drain freely through nodes or vessels, it backs up into your soft tissues and causes swelling and pain.
Who is at Risk for Lymphedema?
There are two types of lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is a rare inherited condition. Secondary lymphedema, which is much more common, can happen when lymph flow is disrupted by surgery, a tumor, injury, chemotherapy, radiation, or infection.
Secondary lymphedema is often a side effect of cancer treatment that involves the surgical removal of lymph nodes or radiation therapy that involves the nodes. If you have lymph nodes removed or your vessels become blocked with scar tissue, lymph drainage can be affected and lymphedema can result.
Lymphedema can cause serious infections such as cellulitis, an infection of the skin and soft tissues, or lymphangitis, an infection of the lymph vessels. Without treatment, severe lymphedema can also cause lymphangiosarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer.
Lymphedema Treatment at Rush
Your lymphedema care plan at Rush is tailored to your specific symptoms and needs, with the goals of decreasing pain and swelling, improving your ability to move freely and getting you back to the activities you enjoy.
Lymphedema-certified occupational therapists at Rush may use one or more of the following to relieve your symptoms:
- Compression garments and/or wrapping the limb with bandages
- A carefully controlled exercise plan that incorporates specific movements to help drain fluid
- Skincare to prevent infection
- Massage using special techniques to relieve lymphedema
If you have lymphedema resulting from lymph node removal during cancer treatment, you may be a candidate for a vascularized lymph node transfer (VLNT) or lymphaticovenous bypass (LVB) performed by a Rush surgeon with special training in highly advanced microsurgical techniques.
In a vascularized lymph node transfer, your surgeon transplants healthy lymph nodes from elsewhere in your body to replace those that were removed.
During lymphaticovenous bypass, or lymphaticovenous anastomosis, your surgeon connects lymphatic channels directly to small nearby veins, bypassing non-functional parts of the lymphatic system.
If you experience lymphedema after mastectomy, it's possible to treat it and reconstruct your breast at the same time with a procedure called total breast autologous reconstruction (TBAR). TBAR builds a new breast using your own body tissue, including functional lymph nodes that your surgeon will reconnect so they drain lymph from their new location in your breast. It all happens during the same surgery, which reduces your downtime.
Rush Excellence in Lymphedema Care
- Expertise you can trust: Rush is on the leading edge of lymphedema treatment. Our plastic and reconstructive surgeons are highly trained in state-of-the-art microvascular techniques for transplanting lymph nodes and rewiring the lymphatic system. Rush is one of the few health systems in the Chicago area offering this surgery.
- Advanced diagnostics: We offer state-of-the-art diagnostic technology like ICG lymphangiography, which uses a fluorescent dye to trace lymph drainage, pinpoint blockages and identify working lymphatic channels.
- A holistic approach: Our occupational therapy team offers a complete, evidence-based program of massage, bandaging, exercises and skin care, all managed by certified lymphedema therapists — including therapists who specialize in managing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.