PT programs help manage lymphedema

Patients with cancer and others often need physical therapy to control limb swelling

Photo: Christien Stierly, PT, CLT-LANA, demonstrates measuring a patient’s hand.

Patients with lymphedema are finding more care options in the physical therapy programs at Schuyler Hospital and Cayuga Medical Center. Patients with cancer can develop this condition, but it also can affect patients with diabetes, infections, vascular conditions, injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, and genetic disorders.                                 

About half of the patients treated at Schuyler Hospital’s lymphedema program are recovering from breast cancer surgery and radiation therapy, notes Christine Stierly, PT, MPT, CLT-LANA. Most lymphedema develops within three years of surgery, but it may develop within days or many years after treatment when fluid builds up in soft tissues and causes swelling that can be painful if not treated.

“It’s important for lymphedema patients to know there are a variety of treatments. Part of our job as therapists is educating patients on the care options and the continuum of care they will need,” Stierly says.

Patients with lymphedema who are treated by physical therapists at Schuyler Hospital and Cayuga Medical Center begin their treatment with an evaluation that includes measurements of limbs affected by the condition and a discussion of treatment options that will be most compatible with their lives. A patient’s rehabilitation needs, range of motion for joints, and pain level are also key factors in developing a treatment plan, says Stierly, who became a Certified Lymphedema Therapist in 2006 and a Breast Cancer Certified Rehabilitation Therapist in 2021. 

“Lymphedema treatment has to work for each patient and take into consideration the patient’s lifestyle, limitations, and needs. It is a chronic condition with no cure yet available, so patients must learn how they can effectively manage their lymphedema for the rest of their lives,” says Stierly.

Common symptoms of lymphedema can include difficulty moving an arm or leg and swelling within the limbs, fingers, and toes. Discomfort can be managed with physical therapy, rather than medication, and is the standard treatment at both Schuyler Hospital and Cayuga Medical Center. The programs often include lymphatic massage, compression bandaging, and exercise to reduce swelling. 

Because lymphedema requires lifelong care, both the Schuyler Hospital and CMC programs teach patients at-home care techniques as they progress through their clinical care. Treatment usually begins with daily sessions that lessen over a few months as symptoms diminish and patients adapt to self-care. Most patients eventually go to annual visits for progress checks and to adjust the size of their compression garments.

“Lymphedema pumps help many patients manage their at-home care,” says Stierly, noting the portable, light-weight pumps mimic manual massage physical therapy and are easy for patients to use.

 Compression garments and bandage wraps are also used to treat lymphedema. The garments and wraps put a controlled amount of pressure on different parts of the arm or leg to help move fluid and keep it from building up. 

For information on lymphedema care at Schuyler Hospital, call (607) 535-8616. For lymphedema care at Cayuga Medical Center, call (607) 252-3500.

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