By Lesley Ronson Brown
Dealing with lymphedema is a risky business. The best insurance you can get is to develop your own awareness and retrain yourself to do things differently. Avoid trauma! We cannot prevent lymphedema, but we can reduce our risk of getting it or worsening it.
The best advice I heard from a physical therapist is to: “know your limb.”
Be aware of changes in your arm or leg and things that might irritate it. We can train ourselves to move through life in ways that keep us safe. It becomes an automatic response, just like looking both ways before crossing a street.
Put yourself on Safety Patrol with these ideas:
- Avoid excessive heat like hot tubs and extremely hot yoga rooms.
- On hot days, reschedule outdoor activities for a cooler day or break down the time spent in the heat into smaller increments.
- Use bug spray and don’t scratch if you get a bite. Keep anti-itch cream handy. You don’t want to leave any opening for infection on the affected limb. Our immune system is weakened and there is a lot of bacteria in the swollen limb’s lymphatic vessels.
- When gardening or hiking, wear long sleeves and gloves.
- Avoid sunburn. Use sunscreen.
- Moisturize affected limb daily with fragrance-free lotion like Lubriderm or Eucerin, etc. Fragrance is drying and can irritate the skin.
- See a dermatologist for skin issues. Common OTC remedies, such as wart removal medicine, could put you at risk.
- Be selective about where you get manicures and pedicures. Do not let anyone cut your cuticles. Request they gently push them back instead. Look for safety first, not price or convenience. You are worth it!
- Lighten up your load. Always keep elbows slightly bent when carrying something heavy, and use the unaffected arm as often as you can. Divide contents between 2 bags or purses. I keep a “car purse” and a “port-a-purse”. The car purse has things I might need, like eyeliner, concealer, blush, hand lotion, jelly bellies, etc. The port-a-purse has essentials, like my wallet, phone, hand sanitizer, extra set of keys, and of course, my extensive collection of chocolate malted milk balls. WARNING! Do not leave those balls or any chocolate in the car purse in the summer months!!! I don’t leave it in the car in Chicago winters, either. Chocolate is best at room temperature
- Open heavy doors wisely. If you live in my home state of Louisiana,
this isn’t usually a problem, as a man will automatically do it for you. For us lymphedemiacs who live north of the Mason-Dixon line like I do now, that rarely will happen. So here’s how to handle the heavy door: Don’t shove or kick it open with your affected limb. Use the other limb or use both arms and hands. And if you can, back into it, using your whole backside of the body with your full weight. This is a good technique if you are carrying a bunch of stuff (but not too much stuff!)
- Buy shredded cheese and pre-cut veggies when possible. Or get friends and family to help you. Reduce the amount of time you spend with a knife in your hand!
- Avoid heavy housework such as vacuuming and scrubbing. Trade off with friends and family. Run their errands for them.
- Keep pets’ claws trimmed. Wear gloves and long, heavy fabric sleeves when appropriate, such as bath time, trimming nails, giving meds, etc.
- Avoid underwire bras and bras or clothing that are too tight.
- Avoid tight jewelry. Wear your watch on the unaffected arm.
- Avoid acupuncture on the affected area, but OK to do on other body parts.
- Avoid hard pressure massage. Use only a light touch, called a “skin stretch”. If your massage therapist doesn’t know this, find one who does. Best to allow only lymphatic drainage experts to touch your limb. Remember, it is precious!
- Have blood pressure and blood draws taken on the unaffected arm or leg.
- Reduce your salt and fat intake as both can cause swelling, and fat deposits left in the space between tissues makes it difficult for fluid to pass through and into lymphatic vessels.
Finally, losing weight or maintaining it might not decrease swelling, but gaining weight CAN bring on episodes of swelling. Now that’s just not fair, darn it!