Treatment Options Exist for All Types of Lymphedema

Submitted by Alecia Whiten, PT, CLT on July 20, 2020

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There’s hope for those with head and neck lymphedema.

It is regularly accepted as a normal, bothersome side effect of cancer treatment or surgery, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Lymphedema is caused by the build-up of fluid and protein in body tissues due to scarring and injury. It occurs because of damage within the lymphatic system, resulting most commonly in arm and leg swelling, but other parts of the body can also be impacted.

Happy mature woman looking at a friend in forest

Head and neck lymphedema is common.

Head and neck lymphedema impacts up to 75% of head and neck surgery and radiation patients. It’s bothersome, can be disfiguring and cause functional issues. The swelling, which can appear dough-like, may be located in the eyelids, lips, jaws, face, chin and neck area. It is most obvious after waking up, but the swelling can last 24/7. Patients may simultaneously experience issues with drooling, swallowing, talking and breathing. These symptoms can often make patients shy away from public activities, further impacting their quality of life.

Physical therapy and speech therapy can help.

This fluid collection rarely recedes on its own, but physical therapy (PT) and speech therapy can help. A therapist certified in Complete Decongestive Therapy can offer manual lymphatic drainage, skin care techniques, therapeutic exercises and compression therapy to help reduce discomfort and the visual symptoms of the condition. During PT, patients are taught how to prevent and manage symptoms following treatment. These therapies are available for all lymphedema patients, no matter the location of concern.

To enhance overall recovery, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) can provide patients and their family members with education and training on swallowing and oral motor exercises, diet changes and precautions when eating and drinking. Combined lymphedema PT and SLP services for any speech or swallowing difficulties is highly recommended.

Lymphedema doesn’t have to be permanent.

You don’t have to suffer with lymphedema. If you are experiencing bothersome side effects from surgery or cancer treatment, talk to your physician to get a referral to physical and/or speech therapy.

Alecia Whiten, PT, CLT is a Physical Therapist who practices with Chesapeake Regional Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Services Department. She is a Vodder Certified Lymphedema Therapist whose specialty is treating patients with Lymphedema in the upper and lower body, as well as the head and neck.

Celeste B. Luna M.S., CCC-SLP, CBIS, is a speech-language pathologist who practices with Chesapeake Regional Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Services Department. She is a Clinical Brain Injury Specialist whose specialty is treating patients with mild to severe brain trauma.