Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when the lymphatic system is blocked or damaged resulting most often in an accumulation of lymph fluid in one or both of the arms or legs but it can occur elsewhere in the body also.
It can be mild, moderate, or severe and present with subtle to extremely painful symptoms. Most often, lymphedema occurs after breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy. However, lymphedema can also be caused by trauma, vein stripping, lipectomy, burn scar excursions, peripheral vascular surgery, and any procedure in which regional lymph nodes or vessels have been removed.
Prolonged accumulation of fluid eventually leads to scarring of the tissues characterized by a thickening of the skin and possibly present as scaly and cracked. Clients with lymphedema can often suffer from tenderness in the area coupled with a loss of mobility and flexibility. Additional symptoms include redness, itchiness, tingling, burning sensations, and heat in the area.
When it comes to our treatment of clients with lymphedema, it is imperative that proper training in the field of lymphatic drainage is used. Many general massage techniques are contraindicated with this condition and consulting with your client’s primary care physician before beginning treatment is a must.
The primary goal when treating lymphedema is to assist in the removal of excess fluid and cellular debris found in the tissues however, care must be taken to not exacerbate the issue. Unlike the circulatory system that has the heart to act as a pump, the lymphatic system relies on things like muscular contraction and osmotic pressures to help move fluid through its system of vessels to the actual nodes.
Using tools that work
As it pertains to kinesiology tape, some of the primary advantages of using it as an intervention method are its ease of application, its relatively non-invasive presence, and length of time it can be actively contributing to the client’s condition. Kinesiology tape placed over the effected area can help create spaces of negative pressure which then helps with the movement of excess fluid.
Couple this taping method with the basic pumping action of muscles as they move and fluid moves with greater ease. Unlike general massage strokes that can compress the tissues, kinesiology tape offers a gentle treatment option. The most common application is the edema strip method used to alleviate swelling and aid in recovery.
In addition to kinesiology taping, IASTM has grown in popularity within the massage therapy community for a number of good reasons. IASTM for lymphedema can be an additional option for treatment if used correctly. Just as we must have adequate education to provide lymphatic treatment therapies, utilizing taping or tools in our work is no exception.
As it pertains to lymphedema and tooling, the imperative of providing treatment that helps facilitate fluid movement without excess compression and shear of the tissues is extremely important. Using IASTM tools is essentially an extension of your hands and thus care and a clear understanding of appropriate techniques is key.
The versatility of the tools allows for a wide range of pressure, strokes, depth, vectors, and intentions depending on the area being treated. From the standpoint of pain, gentle feathering methods have a direct effect on pain perception and can positively influence a client’s sense of well being and relief. For fluid movement, very light effleurage strokes can also elicit positive effects.
When looking at treatment from the perspective of the nervous system, whether using your hands, kinesiology tape, or IASTM tools, the most profound treatment we can provide to any client is that of a sense of truly being cared for. Knowledge of appropriate methods and techniques is essential. However, understanding the profound depth that imparting compassion can have on ones ability to heal is the cornerstone of wellbeing.
Our hands deliver far more than manual therapy. Clients suffering with chronic conditions begin their healing process in their minds, not the surface of their skin. Regardless of your tools of choice when treating lymphedema, treat the whole human being, not just the external symptoms.
About the Author
Stacey Thomas, L.M.T., S.F.M.A., F.M.S., N.K.T., C.F.-L2, has been dedicated to human movement and athletic performance since 1997 and certified as a sports massage therapist since 2005. She holds certification in Functional Movement Screen, Selective Functional Movement Assessment, Neurokinetic Therapy and CrossFit Level 2, as well as other training and soft tissue modalities. She is credentialed by educational organizations regarding human movement and soft tissue treatment. You can find her in one of her three Front Range, Coloado, clinics treating athletes or teaching courses for RockTape.