Managing Symptoms & Moving Forward


Lymphedema is a chronic condition and remains a health concern for the rest of your life. If you have been diagnosed with lymphedema, it’s possible to manage symptoms and move forward with your everyday activities.

The lymphedema specialists at Spectrum Health Lakeland have unique experience and training to care for you. Our comprehensive services are approved by the National Lymphedema Network.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which excess fluid, called lymph, collects in tissues and causes swelling. It happens when part of your lymph system is not working properly. Lymphedema develops in stages. In the early stages, you may have swelling during the day that goes away at night, or swelling that flares up and then goes away on its own. It’s important to follow up on these signs – especially if they continue – because you could have a problem with lymphedema.

There are two main types of lymphedema:

  • Primary lymphedema occurs in those who are born with abnormal lymphatic systems. The lymphatic system maintains proper fluid balance in all our tissues. Symptoms usually develop during childhood, but may also show up later in life. This form is not as common as secondary lymphedema.
  • Secondary lymphedema is the swelling that occurs because of damage to lymphatic tissue. Some examples include cancer treatment, radiation therapy, trauma, surgery, and obesity. Symptoms may occur immediately or they may take months or years to develop. 

What are the early symptoms of lymphedema?

The most noticeable and common symptom is the swelling of an arm or leg. Some also notice a heavy, tight, or full sensation, or an ache in the affected area. The swelling may happen after a specific incident (for example, muscle strain, infection, overheating) or may begin with an unknown cause. It may develop quickly or slowly during the beginning stages.

Other medical conditions may result in swelling as a symptom of that disease, so it is important to see your doctor to have your condition evaluated. 

What are the long-term effects of lymphedema?

  • Hardening and thickening of tissue (fibrosis) caused by the buildup of waste proteins in the lymph fluid. This condition will not go away on its own.
  • Decreased oxygen and nutrition supply to the cells.
  • Slower wound healing.
  • Bacterial growth in the stagnant fluid, which causes infection. Recurrent secondary acute infection (cellulitis) may occur.
  • Left untreated, the swollen limb can lose function, motion, and strength. 

Treatment for lymphedema

Some things may trigger lymphedema: trauma, infection of your affected limb, and extreme temperature changes. Lymphedema swelling can be lessened with early and proper detection, skilled therapy, and ongoing self-care. Even if the swelling goes away, the underlying problem is still there. 

It is important to see your family physician regularly and a certified lymphedema therapist who can reduce the swelling and other problems of lymphedema as well as teach you ongoing care.

Our certified Lymphedema Specialists are licensed occupational or physical therapists who have met the standards established by the National Lymphedema Network (NLN) and Lymphology Association of North America (LANA).

What does Spectrum Health Lakeland’s lymphedema program include?

The gold standard of care for lymphedema is complete decongestive therapy. This is a comprehensive and detailed treatment process that includes:

  • Manual lymph drainage
  • Compression bandaging with low-stretch bandages
  • Thorough skin and nail care education
  • Therapeutic exercises
  • Self-care training
  • Compression garments

Lakeland is an approved treatment center for the National Lymphedema Network.

For more information call one of our treatment center locations: 

Marie Yeager Cancer Center, St. Joseph 269.556.7162
Lakeland Rehabilitation 269.683.6800

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