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Non-invasive therapy helps patients with lymphedema

New Britain [July 29 2010] - Not long ago, Edith Perakos’ right arm looked like it belonged to someone else.

Swollen at least twice its normal size, “it probably weighed about 5 pounds,” says Perakos, a slender, petite 94-year-old.

On June 29, the Kensington resident began lymphedema therapy at The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HCC). During her first session with Certified Lymphedema Therapist Ruth Satterberg “I started feeling better immediately,” Perakos says.

Lymphedema is a common condition that occurs when lymph vessels – part of the body’s immune system – stop pumping and lymph fluid accumulates in body tissues. Swelling results, usually in an arm or leg, but sometimes in the chest, face, neck or genitals. Untreated, lymphedema can lead to further swelling, skin changes and infection, and can be life-threatening.

There are two types of lymphedema: Primary, when a person is born without lymph vessels or nodes; and secondary, when lymphatic vessels or nodes are damaged or removed, most often after surgery and radiation therapy for certain cancers.

Perakos’ lymphedema is likely the result of breast cancer treatment in 1981, which included removal of her right breast and lymph nodes, along with radiation therapy. She had experienced swelling and infections for years since her cancer treatment, but things got considerably worse in February after she landed on her shoulder during a fall.
“I saw how bad she was feeling and said, ‘We have to do something about this,’” says Bernadette Graham, Perakos’ live-in companion.

Though lymphedema is a common condition, it’s not always diagnosed right away, says Satterberg, one of only 15 certified lymphedema therapists in Connecticut. While lymphedema therapy is common in Europe, it’s not as well-known here.

“Lymphedema is a progressively debilitating condition, but we can successfully treat most patients with non-invasive measures that can significantly reduce swelling, discomfort and risk of infection,” Satterberg says.

At HCC, occupational and physical therapists specializing in lymphedema perform complete decongestive therapy, which includes a technique called manual lymph drainage (MLD). During MLD, the therapist uses massage-like techniques to re-route lymph around damaged nodes or vessels. Standard MLD treatment starts with two weeks of daily therapy, although that can vary by patient, Satterberg says.

Compression therapy is used between MLD treatments. Patients wear special bandages or garments on the affected area to prevent re-accumulation of lymph fluid. Different wrapping materials and techniques are used depending on each patient’s condition. When patients reach a maintenance phase of treatment, they learn how to use bandages and compression garments themselves and perform self-MLD.

They also learn special exercises for the affected area and deep-abdominal breathing techniques to increase lymph circulation. Because lymphedema patients are more prone to infection, treatment also includes extensive education on meticulous skin and nail care.

Perakos says the MLD is painless – even relaxing. And though the compression therapy can be a little uncomfortable at times, the positive results are obvious. In just one week of treatment, the swelling in her right arm went down a full inch in circumference.

“You have no idea how happy I am with this,” she says.

For information on lymphedema therapy at The Hospital of Central Connecticut, call (860) 224-5121.

Contact: Nancy Martin, 860-224-5900, ext. 4366

HCC Corporate Communications
(860) 224-5695 • Fax (860) 224-5779