Lymphedema is a condition where there is swelling in the arms due to a block in the lymphatic system in the body. It mostly happens due to a damage done to the lymph nodes during breast cancer treatment or breast reconstruction. We tell you in detail here about the occurrence of lymphedema after breast reconstruction.
What is lymphedema all about?
The lymphatic system filters the blood and flushes out interstitial fluid that contains bacteria, proteins and other debris to the veins. It collects all these toxins from our tissues and deposits them at the lymph nodes. Lymphocytes which are cells that fight infections reside at the lymph node. They separate the waste materials and return the excess fluid to the blood. However, in the condition of lymphedema, the lymph nodes are blocked and the interstitial fluid is retained in the bloodstream and pumped to the tissues, causing infection in the tissues. This ends up causing swelling in the limbs that can be mild to severe.
Breast Reconstruction and Lymphedema
Breast reconstruction is one of the main causes of lymphedema. Breast reconstruction normally follows the radiation treatment when breast cancer is treated. The radiation, coupled with the surgery might end up damaging or blocking the lymphatic system. This causes lymphedema on the arm or breasts.
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Symptoms of Lymphedema after breast reconstruction
- The first symptom of lymphedema after breast reconstruction is the swelling in the arm. The first signs can be noticed when one of your arms does not fit into your tight clothing while the other can.
- You may or may not see any swelling in the breasts, but will experience tenderness and pain.
- The range to which you can lift or move the arm will be restricted. Regular movements will cause a lot of pain.
- If the lymphedema is severe, then it can cause an infection in the skin leading to inflammation and scarring.
Consultation and Diagonosis
If you notice any swelling coupled with pain in the arm, following a breast reconstruction surgery, then it is time to pay the doctor a visit. A scan will reveal the architecture of the lymph nodes and whether any blockage is present in them. The doctor may also inject a dye into the lymph vessels and trace how it is travelling through the system and whether it is getting blocked anywhere. If your swelling is mild, you will be given compression garments to bear the weight of the swollen limb.
Treatment for Lymphedema
The treatment for the condition would aim at reducing the swelling and improving the movement of the lymph. It would also look at restoring the skin damage done due to any infection. The most effective way of treating lymphedema is the Complete Decongestive Therapy that involves manually draining out the lymph nodes coupled with exercising the lymph which would remove any blockage.
In some instances this treatment is not effective and the patient can have recurring bouts of swelling. For such patients, surgery is advised. Mostly, they would be subjected to vascularized lymph node transfer wherein a small set of lymph nodes, complete with their connected artery and vein are transplanted from another body part to the affected limb.
If you ever experience swelling after a breast reconstruction and pain in the limbs, then you must visit the doctor at once and get yourself checked for lymphedema.
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