Looking Closely at Lymphedema

What is Lymphedema?

According to the Mayo Clinic, lymphedema describes the swelling of body tissue that is caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid. This fluid, in usual circumstances, is drained through the body’s lymphatic system. Lymphedema most commonly affects the limbs, but can also affect the chest wall, abdomen, neck, and genitals (Mayo Foundation). Lymphedema is further defined as a chronic, yet treatable, medical condition caused by injury, trauma, or congenital defects in the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system filters protein-rich lymph fluid via the lymph nodes and then releases the filtered fluid into the bloodstream. The fluid is then further filtered by the kidneys and the liver, and the waste material is eliminated in urine or stool. However, when there is damage to the lymph nodes or lymph vessels, protein-rich lymph fluid collects in the tissues and leads to swelling.



What is the Cause?

Worldwide, lymphedema is often caused by parasite infections. Here in the United States, the number one cause is breast cancer treatments: either from lymph node removal or damage to the lymph nodes during radiation. Lymphedema related to cancer is poorly understood, relatively underestimated, and the least researched of all cancer complications (Price, 2022).

The above two examples are types of secondary lymphedema, meaning the condition is caused by another disease or condition. Secondary lymphedema is much more common than primary lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is the result of congenital abnormalities or the absence of lymph tissue. Primary lymphedema typically presents in puberty but can be present soon after birth.

It is a chronic condition that often leads to extreme disability.


What Are The Signs and Symptoms?

Swelling is the most common symptom. When the site of the fluid buildup is in the arms or legs, swelling can result in a restricted range of motion, feelings of heaviness or aching, hardening or thickening of the skin, and recurring infections (such as cellulitis and lymphangitis). The degree of swelling dictates the degree of pain and risk of skin damage.

Lymphedema can also occur in the trunk of the body. Truncal lymphedema is often caused by radiation therapy to the chest wall. This type causes swelling in the chest or back. Pain is typically present in the chest wall, shoulder or back. Often, people will complain of a feeling of heaviness and tingling in these areas (Health, 2022).

Is It a Fatal Disease?

Lymphedema is classified as a chronic illness, and like most chronic illnesses, it can shorten the life span if it is not properly managed. Left untreated, this illness can progress to lymphangiosarcoma, a lymph-related cancer with a life expectancy of several months to two years. Lymphedema can also lead to sepsis, an infection throughout the entire body, which can be fatal. If not fatal, untreated lymphedema may also result in complications such as infection, pain, disability and disfigurement (Sreily, 2021). While there is no definitive cure, there are ways to effectively manage this medical condition.

“Lymphedema is not a fatal disease but can shorten life span. Lifestyle modification and consistent management of the condition is key.”

Conventional Treatments 

  • Schedule: regular visits with a vascular or lymphedema specialist
  • Exercise: move more often through whatever exercise you enjoy
  • MLD: performed by a trained specialist, MLD is the process of physically manipulating fluid buildup by “moving” it to lymph nodes where it can be drained properly
  • Avoid: tight-fitting clothes
  • Do: use compression garments as prescribed by your provider
  • Ditch: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, refined grains, gluten, salt-laden food, and dairy
  • Join: a support group
  • If swelling persists, surgery may be recommended (Johns Hopkins). There are many different types of procedures that can be done, a discussion of which exists beyond the scope of this blog.

Alternative Treatments 

At present, the main alternative treatment for lymphedema is decompressive therapy. The BallancerPro is one such decompressive therapy, and it offers full-body lymphatic drainage as opposed to single-limb decompressive treatments. Other complementary treatments have been used including, physiotherapy, yoga, acupuncture, and herbal medicine.



Other Alternative Therapies to Consider:

  • Skincare: is an important part of the management of this condition- shea butter and coconut oil are safe and natural options
  • Supplements: Diosmin, Bromelain, Selenium, Hesperidin, Rutin, Butcher’s Broom, Pedunculate Oak, and Horse Chestnut (Sheikhi-Mobarakeh, 2020)
  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: HBOT involves breathing in pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber to promote the growth of new lymph vessels (PainScale)
  • Shockwave: Via acoustic sound waves, shockwave also promotes the growth of new lymph vessels. The sound waves cause a micro-trauma in the areas of damage and break up the scar tissue to increase the blood flow to the area
  • Taping: kinesiology taping with the help of a therapist
  • Hydrotherapy: swimming or water aerobics (PainScale)
  • Cold laser: Light energy therapy that may reduce pain, soften scar tissue, and unblock the lymphatic system
  • Therapeutic ultrasound: Uses high-frequency sound waves to provide deep heat to soft
  • Electrical stimulation: Uses machines such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
    (TENS) – leading to lymphatic drainage by muscle contractions

Key Points:

Lymphedema is a chronic condition with no cure, although symptoms and risk of disability can be lessened through effective management. Decompression therapy is a great treatment option. Lifestyle modification is crucial to effectively manage the swelling. Alternative treatments and supplements might be helpful and are something to discuss with your doctor or to further research.

Body R-N-R has two effective methods of moving lymphatic fluid. Holistically, lymphatic drainage can be done with the BallancerPro. There are also numerous studies from 2010 to the present that support the use of shockwave for primary and secondary lymphedema. Four of these studies are included under our References below as the last four citations.


Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, September 18). Lymphedema. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lymphedema/symptoms-causes/syc-20374682

Price, A. (2022, February 5). Lymphedema: 7 natural ways to manage symptoms. Dr. Axe. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://draxe.com/health/lymphedema/

Health, A. S. I. (2022, March 2). The Ins and outs of Truncal lymphedema. Allied Services Integrated Health System. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.allied-services.org/news/2022/march/the-ins-and-outs-of-truncal-lymphedema/#:~:text=Truncal%20lymphedema%20presents%20most%20commonly,or%20tingling%20are%20often%20reported

Sreily. (2021, July 21). Life with lymphedema: Fatal or just frustrating? Total Lipedema Care. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://totallipedemacare.com/blog/life-with-lymphedema-fatal-or-just-frustrating/#:~:text=Lymphedema%20is%20classified%20as%20a,%2C%20pain%2C%20and%20even%20disability

Surgical treatment of lymphedema: Johns Hopkins Department of Plastic & Reconstructive surgery. Surgical Treatment of Lymphedema | Johns Hopkins Department of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery. (2022, May 12). Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/plastic_reconstructive_surgery/services-appts/lymphedema.html

Sheikhi-Mobarakeh, Z., Yarmohammadi, H., Mokhatri-Hesari, P., Fahimi, S., Montazeri, A., & Heydarirad, G. (2020, November 9). Herbs as old potential treatments for lymphedema management: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965229920318823

Alternative and complementary treatments for lymphedema. PainScale. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.painscale.com/article/alternative-and-complementary-treatments-for-lymphedema

Lee, K. W., Kim, S. B., Lee, J. H., & Kim, Y. S. (2020, October). Effects of extracorporeal shockwave therapy on improvements in lymphedema, quality of life, and fibrous tissue in breast cancer-related lymphedema. Annals of rehabilitation medicine. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7655225/

Bae, H., & Kim, H. J. (2013, April). Clinical outcomes of extracorporeal shock wave therapy in patients with secondary lymphedema: A pilot study. Annals of rehabilitation medicine. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3660484/

Michelini, S., Cardone, M., Failla, A., Moneta, G., Fiorentino, A., & Cappellino, F. (2010, May 19). Treatment of geriatrics lymphedema with shockwave therapy – BMC geriatrics. BioMed Central. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2318-10-S1-A105

Low-energy extracorporeal shockwave therapy as a … – liebertpub.com. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/lrb.2020.0033



About the Author

Alisa La Liberte, MSN, RN began her career in 1992 in Los Angeles and has served in various roles in hospitals, schools, & clinics throughout the country. She earned her Master of Science in Nursing at UCSF, as a Cardiovascular Clinical Nurse Specialist. Alisa’s strong background in clinical research pushed her to launch Body R-N-R, a wellness practice in Scottsdale, AZ, with technology backed by clinical studies. Read more about Alisa here.

Alisa La Liberte, MSN, RN, Founder of Body R-N-R

Alisa La Liberte MSN, RN

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