Mar 14, 2023 The Lymphatic System and Lymphedema

By: Patricia Nolan, PT, MPT, CLT-LANA and Damaris Ababio, PTA, MSCS, Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center

Lymphedema is a chronic, progressive dysfunction of the lymphatic system. Though not curable, it is manageable. With treatment and guidance from a Certified Lymphedema Therapist, those with this condition can be successful in improving and managing this condition.

What is lymphedema? To understand lymphedema, one must first be introduced to the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system, working to clear the body of impurities as well as transporting immune cells to fight infection. This is done by transporting lymph fluid throughout the body. Lymph is naturally occurring in the body and is comprised of water, protein, impurities and waste. As lymph fluid is moved through the lymphatic system, the impurities and waste are filtered and removed from the body.

Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system does not function properly which result in swelling. Due to system malformation, damage or removal of lymph nodes, lymph is not processed efficiently and will accumulate in the impacted region of the body. Dysfunction of the lymphatic system is not curable, and over time, swelling will continue to worsen. Left untreated, continued accumulation of lymph can impact one’s ability to move a limb, can cause fibrosis and skin changes, and increases the risk of infection.

Though lymphedema is not curable, it is manageable. The gold standard for treatment of lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy or CDT. CDT is a treatment protocol that is provided by Certified Lymphedema Therapists. It involves two stages, treatment and self-management.

Sate One -- Treatment Phase:

  • Skin and wound care – meticulous skin care is necessary to maintain healthy tissue and aide in prevention of infection.
  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage – specialized massage which promotes lymph flow through and absorption into the system.
  • Compression bandaging – serial multi layered short stretch bandaging creates containment of swelling and improved filtering of lymph back into the system.
  • Exercise – muscle pumping and joint movement are needed to promote lymphatic flow

Stage Two – Self-Management Phase:

  • Compression garment fitting – for long term self-management, appropriate fitting for compression garments and training on use.
  • Home program – home exercises, continued daily skin care, self-lymphatic drainage massage.

Patricia Nolan, PT, MPT, CLT-LANA,is a Physical Therapist at the Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center. Patricia has 21 years of clinical experience, and has been on staff in the ACC physical therapy department since 2006. Her areas of specialty are lymphedema, breast cancer rehabilitation and pelvic floor dysfunction. She always strives to provide compassionate and understanding care for her patients.

The Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center Rehabilitation centers are open and ready to help you achieve your goals. With four locations in West Orange, Millburn and Livingston, the experienced and compassionate staff at Cooperman Barnabas Rehabilitation offers adults and children the specialized care they need to resume an active life after surgery, injury or illness. They are committed to providing patients with the most advanced services in a safe, caring and soothing environment. For high-risk patients who are unable to visit in person, telehealth is an option. Patients do not need a prescription for physical therapy services.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call 973-322-7500.