Lymphedema – which is sometimes referred to as “lymphatic obstruction” – is a condition where fluid accumulates in the soft tissues of the body due to a blockage or damage of the lymph system. The lymph system of the body is part of both the circulatory system and the immune system. In most instances, patients will experience difficulties with the legs or the arms; however, it may negatively impact the genital region, the chest area, the neck, and the abdomen. If you are a physical therapist that is interested in pursuing a specialty, you should consider focusing on lymphedema physical therapy. Continue reading to learn about this exciting career.

Physical Therapy on Leg

What Causes Lymphedema?

Lymphedema happens when the lymph vessels of the body are not successful in draining lymph. Common causes of the issue include the following:

  • Inherited Issues – An inherited issue may result in the improper development of the lymphatic system. When this occurs, lymphedema may occur.
  • Surgery – If a lymph node is removed surgically, it could result in the development of the condition.
  • Cancer – It is common for cancer cells to actually block the vessels that are responsible for transporting lymph. If this happens, it creates a blockage that causes lymphedema to develop.
  • Radiation Treatment – In some instances, radiation cancer treatment may result in the inflammation and the scarring of the lymph vessels or the lymph nodes within the body. When this happens, lymphedema may then develop.
  • Parasites – While more common in tropical areas of developing countries than in the United States, parasitic blockage of the lymph nodes may also cause lymphedema.

What is the Purpose of the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system of the body consists of a large network of vessels. These carry lymph – which is full of protein – through the body.

The system is part of both the immune system and circulatory system.

The lymph nodes of the body serve as filters and include cells that are responsible for fighting against infection and even cancer. This fluid circulates as a result of muscle contractions and very small pump-like structures on the walls of the vessels. When the vessels are unable to drain the lymph fluid appropriately, lymphedema develops.

In addition to the above, the lymphatic system has several other functions. These include the collection and the transport of fluids from tissues of the body to the included venous system, absorbing fatty acids and transporting those fatty acids from the digestive system of the body, and removing potentially harmful microorganisms and other types of foreign matter from the body.

There are white blood cells that are constructed in and stored within the tissues of the lymphatic system.

A diagnosis of lymphedema indicates damage has occurred within the lymphatic system.

What are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?

The following outlines the most common symptoms that lymphedema patients experience:

  1. First, it is common for patients to experience swelling in an arm or a leg. It could be a section of the appendage or the entire appendage. It all depends on the overall severity of the issue. Depending on the affected appendage, the toes or the fingers may swell, too.
  2. Next, the patient may find that their body feels tight or exceptionally heavy.
  3. It is very common for lymphedema patients to find that they have restrictions – in terms of their range of motion.
  4. Many patients will find that they experience recurring infections. This stems from the fact that the immune system is negatively impacted.
  5. Many will develop fibrosis. This is when the skin starts to harden and thicken.

What is Lymphedema Physical Therapy?

If you are a physical therapist, you may undergo additional training to specialize in lymphedema physical therapy. In short, you will serve as a professional that places an emphasis on treating patients who have been diagnosed with lymphedema.

The Lymphedema therapy you provide will reduce swelling in the arms and legs of your patients by performing activities known to move lymphatic fluid out of the affected limbs.

In most instances, this is done through the use of a compression sleeve, which helps squeeze the lymph toward the center region of the body.

In addition to the compression sleeve, you may perform a type of massage known as “manual lymphatic drainage”. This is highly therapeutic. You simply massage in a certain way on the affected limb. The movements that you perform on your patient help in pushing the fluid in the body towards its center.

In addition to this, you may also help the patient in performing lymphedema exercises, skincare, recommendations on ensuring optimal hygiene, and educating the patient so that they avoid the complications that could develop as a result of lymphedema.

The following outlines additional tasks that you will take part in as a lymphedema physical therapist:

  • Utilizing Short-Stretch Bandaging
  • Educating on Garment Compression
  • Providing Information on Proper Skin Care
  • Muscle Strength Exercises
  • Lymph Flow Improvement Exercises
  • Teaching How to Be Independent While a Patient

What Complications May Occur with Lymphedema?

When working as a lymphedema physical therapist, you will play a large role in helping your patients to avoid or deal with the complications that may develop as a result of the condition. The following outlines just a few of the main complications that may be experienced:

  • If severe swelling occurs, it can result in small openings on the skin. In turn, this could cause open wounds and/or blistering. When this happens, the lymph may drain through the skin.
  • As the lymphedema increases in severity, changes to the skin may occur. An example includes fibrosis – the thickening and the hardening of the skin.
  • Cellulitis (skin infection) may occur when a patient has lymphedema. Many patients may be automatically issued antibiotics in order to treat an infection that results in pain, warmth, and swelling.
  • If a skin infection is not properly treated, it may pass into the bloodstream and lead to the development of sepsis. This is a blood infection that results in the infection damaging the tissues of the body. This is potentially life-threatening. Additionally, it must be dealt with through emergency-based medical treatments.
  • If lymphedema is not treated and develops in severity, it could cause a form of cancer that impacts the soft tissues within the body. While this is considered rare, it is a complication that must be considered by medical professionals who work closely with a lymphedema sufferer.

How Do I Become a Lymphedema Therapist?

If – as a physical therapist – you elect to become a lymphedema therapist, you will simply need to obtain certification in the field.

The training program should be in Complete Decongestive Therapy. In some instances, if you have a bachelor’s degree in either physical therapy or nursing, it will count towards the specialty.

Currently, the courses take 135 hours to complete. Once you successfully complete the program, you will be able to work directly with patients who suffer from lymphedema.

Where Do Lymphedema Physical Therapists Work?

In most cases, lymphedema physical therapists will work in a clinical setting; however, there are those that work in the home health care field. You may work in a physical therapy practice, a general medical practice, a clinic, in rehabilitative centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other facilities.

How Much Do Lymphedema Physical Therapists Make?

Generally speaking, lymphedema physical therapists make approximately $38.00 per hour, or $79,411 each year.

It all depends on the area where you work and the educational background that you have.

While it is possible to make as little as $40,000 a year, it is also possible to make upwards of $120,000 each year.

According to information derived from current specialists, it is possible to advance within the career. The amount of money to be made and the overall success that may be experienced in the field depends on the skill level of the professional, the area where they practice, and the number of years of experience they have. Examples of positions that may be obtained include the following:

  • Certified Lymphedema Physical Therapists
  • Lymphedema Occupational Therapist
  • Certified Lymphedema Therapist
  • Outpatient Certified Lymphedema Therapist
  • Home Health Certified Lymphedema Therapist
  • Manager of Lymphedema Therapy

By obtaining a certification in lymphedema treatments, you will be able to safely and effectively assist patients with lymphatic disorders.

Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is considered to be the standard of care for the treatment of both primary and secondary types of lymphedemas.

You will be able to assist in the management of post-traumatic, post-surgical, and chronic types of venous-based insufficiencies. Additionally, you will assist patients who have wounds who have or are prone to lymphatic complications.

If you would like to network with other professionals that specialize in lymphedema therapy or gain access to tools, resources, and other types of information that will help you advance your career, we here at Colorado Physical Therapy Network encourage you to join us today. To get involved with our network and make a difference in the lives of your patients, click the following link now:

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