Lymphedema is a condition that causes swelling in the body tissues. It can happen in any part of the body, but it usually develops in the arms or legs.
It is important to identify and treat lymphedema immediately. It can get worse if not treated on time. The most important symptoms of lymphedema are pain and swelling, but it can be managed by diet and some lifestyle changes.
What causes lymphedema?
If your tumour grows more significant in size to block a lymph node, it can cause lymphedema. Sometimes during cancer surgery, lymph nodes are removed. It can also cause lymphedema. Sometimes, radiation therapy can damage lymph nodes, leading to fluid build-up and lymphedema.
Can lymphedema be cured?
There is no guaranteed cure for lymphedema, but it can be managed so that it doesn’t get worse. The symptoms of lymphedema can also be reduced to minimise the discomfort.
Top four ways to prevent lymphedema
Here are four ways you will need to do at home to reduce your risk of lymphedema.
- Exercise, positioning and deep breathing
Exercise is not just a great way to manage lymphedema but is also the number one way to prevent it. Particular exercises will help you drain the fluid from that body part.
You can exercise to help reduce swelling caused by a build-up of lymphoedema. You can sit in a position that supports the lymph to drain. Research says that exercise helps lymph move through the lymphatic system. This also helps reduce swelling. Exercise helps the muscles contract and pushes lymph through the lymph vessels. Exercises have other benefits. They can help you to keep a full range of movement and make you feel better..
Start exercising gently and build up slowly. Walking can be the best way to start. You can slowly increase the distance and the pace of walking. You can also include yoga, Tai chi, pilates, cycling, swimming or water aerobics.
Before you start any exercise, talk to your doctor or lymphoedema specialist (nurse or physio). They can advise you about what you should and shouldn’t do.
When you’re sitting or lying down, it helps to position yourself in a way that allows the lymph to drain.
With arm lymphoedema, when you’re sitting, raise your arm to a comfortable level by putting it on a cushion or a pillow, but not above the height of your shoulder.
With leg lymphoedema, don’t sit with your legs down; instead, either lie on the sofa or put your leg on a stool or chair. Ensure you fully support your leg with a cushion or pillow under the knee.
With lymphoedema of your head and neck, sleep with 2 or 3 pillows to raise your head and help the fluid drain. You can also increase the head of the bed by using blocks under the legs of the head of the bed.
Deep breathing exercises help the flow of the lymph fluid through the body. It allows lymph to flow into the lymph system in the chest away from the area with lymphoedema.
Deep breathing is helpful for all types of lymphoedema, even head and neck swelling. It changes the pressure in your tummy (abdomen) and chest. This encourages lymph to flow back into the blood system.
Deep breathing can also help you to relax.
Skincare is essential to prevent lymphedema because any cuts or bruises in the body part prone to lymphedema may cause infections. This is because bacteria can enter the body through these cuts and bruises
Here are some measures to take:
- Use moisturising lotions and mild soaps to avoid dry skin.
- Use sunscreen while going outdoors.
- Wear thick gloves with cotton lining to prevent cuts and bruises.
- Avoid needles or injections in the affected area.
- Avoid tight clothing or jewellery.
- Keep nails short to avoid infections.
- Avoid mosquito bites as much as possible.
- Avoid bathing in hot or very cold water.
- Avoid getting blood pressure readings in the arm near your surgery.
- Use antifungal powder to prevent fungal infections in your skin.
- Don’t cut your nails with nail clippers.
- Wear shoes that fit correctly and give support on the top of your feet if your lower limbs are affected.
- Change in diet
Lymphedema can worsen with weight gain. So, it’s advisable to make some lifestyle changes, including diet, to reduce weight.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet
Adhering to a healthy diet can help alleviate lymphedema symptoms because increased fat makes it more difficult for the lymphatic system to drain and pass fluid properly. Specifically, those with lymphedema can eat to starve lymphedema by consuming foods that fight both lymphedema and cancer, along with avoiding foods that contribute to symptoms.
Does drinking water help with lymphedema? Absolutely! Because the body is more prone to hold onto excess liquid when it feels dehydrated, drinking enough water is especially important for those with lymphedema so they can maintain a healthy fluid and chemical balance. Of course, lymphedema patients should be careful not to drink too much water, which can overwhelm the body and worsen swelling.
Those with lymphedema should be wary of beverages containing alcohol and caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration. For this reason, coffee and lymphedema do not mix well.
Although drinking enough water is essential for those with lymphedema, diuretics — also known as water pills — should be avoided. Although diuretics may have positive short-term effects by removing the water content of swelling, taking diuretics can worsen lymphedema symptoms in the long term because the dehydration effect of diuretics leaves a higher concentration of protein mass in the lymph fluid that draws more water to the swollen area as soon as the diuretic wears off.
Include protein in your diet
Protein is essential to keeping your body healthy and fully functional. Fluid can seep from your bloodstream into your tissues when you do not eat enough protein, making lymphedema worse. For this reason, you should work healthy protein from seeds, nuts, eggs, legumes, fish, poultry and tofu into your regular diet.
To maintain your body’s fluid balance, you should consume enough protein daily. The recommended daily dietary protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. Be careful not to consume excessive protein, which can overwhelm the kidneys and cause other fluid retention issues.
Reduce salt in your food
Consuming a large amount of sodium often causes water retention within the body. This means that the more salt you eat, the more fluid your body holds onto, which can worsen pre-existing lymphedema symptoms.
Because salt is most often found in processed foods, you can limit your daily sodium intake by avoiding canned foods, pickled foods, frozen and boxed meals, salty condiments, cured meats and fast food. Be sure to read nutrition labels carefully so you can steer clear of excess sodium.
More whole foods in your diet
Whole foods are the best foods to eat for those with lymphedema because they are not processed. Unlike whole foods, prepared foods typically contain added sugar, soy, salt, unhealthy fats and other unnatural additives.
Juicing is an alternative option for those who cannot eat whole solid foods. However, juicing is not recommended if you can eat solid food because the process of juicing breaks down fibre, which is a valuable health benefit of whole foods. Fruit juices can also spike blood glucose levels more rapidly than whole fruits.
Avoid certain foods
Along with incorporating whole foods into your diet, you should try to cut other foods out of your diet. Some foods can exacerbate lymphedema symptoms because of the way they are processed and the additives or high salt content they contain. These foods include added sugars — specifically fructose — refined grains, chemically modified fats and most animal and dairy products.
- Get a regular medical check-up
Your doctor may be able to spot any changes or problems that you have not yet noticed. If you have undergone cancer surgery, you must complete your follow-up schedule.