New Therapy is Changing Lives for Lymphedema Sufferers

Dramatic improvements for patients battling lymphedema

A Scripps therapist assists a patient in a lymphedema treatment in a pleasant, sunny clinical environment.

Fifty-nine-year-old Mary Bennett first noticed swelling in her feet. In the next six weeks, she gained 90 pounds, her legs doubled in size and she was faced with painful, large open leg wounds.

Mary has lymphedema, a condition most often caused by an accumulation of lymphatic fluid when lymph nodes have been removed during surgery or when lymphatic vessels are missing, impaired or damaged from radiation or trauma. The damaged vessels can cause protein-rich fluids to collect in body tissues, causing severe swelling in the arms, legs or other parts of the body, as well as open wounds, skin discoloration and infection that can result in loss of function.

Until recently, the little-known condition has meant devastating life changes for those affected. For Mary, it meant retiring early from her job as a Pentagon webmaster.

For others, like petite, 97-year-old Eleanor Horr, a former Scripps La Jolla nurse, it meant altering her clothes for 40 years to compensate for an enlarged arm caused by 10 pounds of fluid.

Marion Burg, a New York career woman, lived with severe swelling and tightness in both her legs for 20 years.

“I didn’t know what I had, but hot weather made my condition worse,” she says. “No one knew what I had.”

Now, thanks to a relatively unknown therapy, patients who suffer from lymphedema have hope for more normal lives. Lymphedema programs can be found at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, Scripps Mercy Hospital, Scripps Green Hospital and Scripps Polster Breast Care Center.

The comprehensive, research-based treatments are tailored to each individual’s specific needs. Treatments may include:

  • Manual drainage of lymphatic fluid through therapeutic massage
  • Multilayered bandaging and specially fitted compression garments that reduce the amount of fluid in the swollen tissues
  • Therapeutic exercise/home programs
  • Patient and family education
  • Periodic follow-up

Although there is no cure for lymphedema, “many patients are able to regain full function in their daily lives through our program,” says Lisa Johnson, a lymphedema certified therapist.

Lymphedema became a part of Mary Bennett’s life nine months after she had a bladder resection surgery for invasive bladder cancer. After retiring, she and her husband moved to San Diego, where her urologist referred her to Scripps La Jolla Rehabilitation Services.

“At first, my husband and I were very skeptical,” says Bennett. “The therapy didn’t seem extreme enough and there was no medication involved. But it was my last resort and, believe me, the treatment is a miracle. I’m truly amazed.”

Mary’s legs are now back to normal and she feels confident that she can manage lymphedema on her own with periodic follow-ups. Marion Burg’s condition has “dramatically improved” in only five weeks. And Eleanor Horr is celebrating her new-found health at 97 years old.

“More people need to learn about this program,” says Horr. “I can’t believe this is my real arm and hand! I can do more with it than ever before.”