Alternative and Complementary Treatments for Lymphedema
What is lymphedema?
The lymphatic system moves fluid throughout the body to help fight off pathogens and filter waste. Lymphedema refers to the swelling that occurs when the lymphatic system is unable to adequately drain lymph fluid. Lymphedema can occur anywhere in the body but is most common in the arms and legs.
In addition to conventional medical treatments for lymphedema, the condition can also be managed with various complementary and alternative treatments, including mind-body medicine, external energy therapies, and several other types of treatment.
Mind-body approaches, including self-awareness, relaxation and meditation, are widely used as complementary, alternative or integrative approaches to healthcare. Some approaches that may be helpful for lymphedema include acupuncture, moxibustion, yoga, tai chi, and relaxation techniques.
- Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of thin needles into the skin to stimulate specific points on the body. This can stimulate blood flow and promote healing.
- Moxibustion is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that involves burning ground mugwort leaves on or near the body’s meridians and acupuncture points to encourage the flow of lymphatic fluid.
- Yoga and tai chi can stimulate circulation of lymphatic fluid and provide gentle compression of superficial lymph nodes. Strenuous exercise of the affected area should be avoided. It’s always best to consult a health care provider before starting any new exercise.
- Relaxation techniques and guided imagery can help reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, and sleep problems. Managing these issues is important when living with lymphedema.
External energy treatments
External energy treatments involve the use of electric and electromagnetic currents, or their derivatives, to provide pain relief and regenerate tissues. Treatments commonly used for lymphedema include therapeutic ultrasound, electrically stimulated lymphatic drainage, and low-level laser therapy.
- Therapeutic ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to provide deep heat to soft tissue. This can improve circulation and promote healing.
- Electrically stimulated lymphatic drainage involves the use of electrical waveforms, intensities and polarities to manage pain and treat edema. This treatment is not the same as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). It is thought that electrically stimulated lymphatic drainage causes muscle contractions, creating a pumping effect. This propels lymphatic fluid along drainage pathways.
- Low-level (cold laser) therapy involves the use of energy within the spectrum of light to create biochemical changes in affected tissue. This type of therapy may reduce pain, soften scar tissue, and unblock the lymphatic system.
Other complementary/alternative treatments for lymphedema include hydrotherapy, kinesiology tape, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
- Hydrotherapy involves activities performed in the water, such as swimming and aquatic movements. These activities can gently strengthen the body, and the hydrostatic pressure can improve lymphatic congestion.
- Kinesiology tape can relieve tissue tension and reduce pain. It is especially helpful in compressing and providing pressure to areas that are difficult to wrap, such as the head, neck and trunk. It should not stay on the body for more than 18 hours.
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves breathing in pure oxygen in a sealed chamber that is pressurized at 1.5 to 3 times normal atmospheric pressure. HBOT may promote the growth of new lymph vessels and heal scar tissue that may be blocking lymphatic channels.
Wanchai, Ausanee & Armer, Jane & Stewart, Bob. (2013). Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Lymphedema. Seminars in oncology nursing. 29. 41-9. 10.1016/j.soncn.2012.11.006. (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235395333_Complementary_and_Alternative_Medicine_and_Lymphedema)
Rodrick, Julia & Poage, Ellen & Wanchai, Ausanee & Stewart, Bob & Cormier, Janice & Armer, Jane. (2013). Complementary, Alternative, and Other Non-Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) Treatment Methods in the Management of Lymphedema: A Systematic Search and Review.. PM & R : the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation. 6. 10.1016/j.pmrj.2013.09.008. (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256929563_Complementary_Alternative_and_Other_Non-Complete_Decongestive_Therapy_CDT_Treatment_Methods_in_the_Management_of_Lymphedema_A_Systematic_Search_and_Review)