By Liz Hoffmaster, PT, LMT, MTI
What happens to the lymphatic system when it fails? Lymphedema is a common chronic, debilitation condition in which excess fluid called lymph collects in tissues and causes swelling in them.
The lymphatic system is something most of us take for granted. The lymph nodes are tucked away in the nooks and crannies of our bodies, quietly going about the business of grinding up toxic waste we breathe and ingest. These now neutralized products are then carried by cobweb sized vessels, into increasingly larger lymphatic vessels, that deliver their product into the venous system. Once there, deconstructed toxic waste is shunted into kidneys and colon for elimination.
We have no idea how important this physically tiny system is until it fails. In a 24 hour period, approximately 7200 liters of blood move through the heart. In that same 24 hour period only 1.5 to 3 liters of lymph cycle through the heart. However, if there is lymph system failure due to surgery, disease or genetic misfortune, the consequences are sobering. Today one of the most common causes of lymphedema, is surgical removal of lymphatic nodes secondary to cancers such as breast, ovarian, cervical (cervix) and rectal.
During these surgeries many nodes are removed and the ones that are left are unable to manage the lymphatic load of the associated limb. Radiation may cause further assault to the lymph system and worsen the problem. As a result limbs become enlarged, painful, highly susceptible to infection, and in need of a lifetime of management. On the bright side a person may have node removal and radiation and never get lymphedema. Those unlucky people who do, may do so anywhere from 2 weeks to 30 years post operatively.
I invite you to look at photographs from Lymphedema Therapy. As you look at them please think about your own lymph system and what a precious gift it is. The before and after pictures represent 100s of hours of work by dedicated therapists, performing lymphatic drainage, bandaging and wound care.
To learn more about lymphedema and how it can be impacted by lymph drainage techniques, LMTs are encouraged to take Intro to Lymphatic Drainage, a massage continuing education course offered annually Lauterstein-Conway Massage School.