Sometimes, when older adults undergo cancer treatment, they may experience swelling in their arms or legs. This is called lymphedema. Though it is most common in people who have been treated for cancer, it can be caused by other things. While there is no cure for the condition, when it is treated early, it is manageable. Understanding lymphedema and its symptoms may help you to recognize it sooner in your aging relative.
Lymphedema happens when the flow of lymph fluid is obstructed and collects in a limb. Lymph is fluid that contains protein and helps to collect and remove harmful substances from the body, like viruses, bacteria, and waste products. When the fluid reaches the lymph nodes, the harmful substances are filtered out by lymphocytes and are eventually flushed out.
Causes of Lymphedema
There are two kinds of lymphedema: primary lymphedema and secondary lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema is far more common than primary. It is caused by an underlying condition that damages lymph nodes or vessels.
Some possible causes are:
Surgery: Lymph nodes may be removed during cancer treatment to determine if cancer has spread. Or, lymph vessels can be damaged during a surgery involving blood vessels in the arms or legs.
Radiation: When cancer is treated using radiation, it may result in scarring of the lymph nodes or lymph vessels.
Tumors: Tumors that encroach on lymph nodes or vessels may cause a blockage.
Infection: Infections or parasites can block the flow. However, this cause of lymphedema is most likely to occur in tropical climates and developing countries.
The symptoms of lymphedema will appear in the affected limb. Some of the symptoms are:
- Swelling in the arm or leg. It may affect all of the limbs, including the fingers or toes, or just a part of the limb.
- Loss of full range of motion.
- Feeling like the limb is heavy or tight.
- Discomfort or aching.
- Infections that reoccur.
- Fibrosis, which is when the skin becomes hardened or thicker.
The symptoms of lymphedema can be mild, causing barely noticeable swelling. If your aging relative experiences swelling that doesn’t go away, they should see a doctor. Or, if the person has already been diagnosed with lymphedema, they should see a doctor if the swelling suddenly becomes much worse.
Senior care can assist older adults to take steps to manage their lymphedema symptoms. Sometimes doctors recommend using compression stockings or sleeves. However, they can be difficult to put on, especially if the older adult isn’t able to bend or if they have problems with their hands. A senior care provider can assist them with putting compression garments on. Exercise is often recommended as well since it can help keep lymph fluid flowing. A senior care provider can help your aging relative to perform the gentle exercises that can help keep the fluid moving.
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