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I’ve often heard about lymphedema. What is it?

 – Dr. Anna Towers, director of the MUHC Lymphedema Program, explains.

Lymphedema is brought about by a compromised lymphatic system that forces a buildup of fluids in a part of the body. This localized retention of fluids causes painful tissue swelling. Lymphedema is observed in patients who have undergone surgery or radiotherapy but especially in breast cancer patients. In some cases, it takes years to manifest itself following treatment episodes. Lymphedema can lead to a chronic debilitating condition if untreated. Recurrent bacterial infections (cellulitis) can be observed to the point at which hospitalization may be required.

Lymphedema and related arm and shoulder problems should be diagnosed as early as possible, as this will increase the effectiveness of the current recommended treatment: Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). CDT aims to improve lymph drainage through existing lymphatic vessels and to encourage collateral circulation. It can be subdivided into two treatment phases:

  1. An edema reduction phase of about one month for more severe cases of lymphedema. This treatment involves specific massage techniques (manual lymphatic drainage) and application of special bandages.
  2. A maintenance phase, which is a life-long commitment to wearing a compression garment during the day and to performing specific exercises.

There are now more than 60 qualified therapists who provide this type of treatment, mostly through private practice, across the province.

Since lymphedema is incurable, prevention and awareness-raising initiatives are crucial for promoting early diagnosis. To this end, the new Jewish Hospital will set up information programs that will be available throughout the province.

To learn more about lymphedema, please visit: