Lymphedema (Lymphoedema) is life-long chronic condition caused by a compromised lymphatic system. It requires daily care and management and there is no cure. When the lymphatic system is obstructed, the lymphatic fluid builds up in the interstitial tissues of the body, causing swelling in the affected region often including the arm(s) or leg(s).
Symptoms of lymphedema can include: unresolved swelling in the affected area, heaviness of the limb, a sensation of pins and needles, aching in the associated shoulder or hip due to the increased weight of the swollen limb, loss of limb function, tightness of the skin, pain, decreased range of motion of the affected joint, decreased mobility, depression, and reduced quality of life.
Lymphedema can be secondary due to a variety of situations including radiation treatment, surgery, injury, inflammation, and infection of a lymph node. Individuals affected by these situations are at risk for lymphedema and have been known to experience an onset of lymphedema up to 30 years after the lymphatic system was damaged.
Lymphedema can also be primary or congenital due to a structural or functional malformation of the lymphatic system that may onset between 0 – 6 months of age, around puberty or after age 35. There are also rare inherited diseases that cause lymphedema such as Milroy’s disease and Meige’s disease.
Unfortunately there is no known cure for lymphedema, instead the patient must seek treatment to manage the condition and they take special care to protect the affected limb. It is important to seek treatment as soon as lymphedema is noticed. Combined Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is usually recommended, which includes manual lymphatic drainage done by a specialized therapist, compression bandaging, self care and therapeutic exercises.
Now more and more people are seeking acupuncture as an adjunctive therapy especially if they have conditions that are contraindicated for CDT.
Several pilot studies have confirmed that acupuncture can also improve clinical symptoms of lymphedema and reduce limb volume (see references below). Larger clinical trials are now underway to confirm these preliminary results.
Acupuncture has also been established as a safe and effective evidence-based treatment for symptoms experienced by cancer patients (such as pain, fatigue, anxiety, nausea/vomiting, xerostomia, etc.).
It is not yet known how acupuncture works to improve lymphedema in scientific terms. Physicians B. Lawrenda and F. Vicini theorize in their editorial Acupuncture: Could an Ancient Therapy Be the Latest Advance in the Treatment of Lymphedema? (Cancer July 1, 2013). They think the effect could be due to acupuncture’s impact on the peripheral nervous system – increasing systemic and local tissue levels of endogenous opioids (pain killers) anti-inflammatory cytokines (hormonal regulators) and neuropeptides (molecules used by brain cells to communicate with each other). They go on to say that acupuncture may reduce tissue inflammation and fibrosis via increased tissue oxygenation, reducing free-radical production, and flushing of toxins, cellular debris and proteins.
In Chinese medicine theory, lymphedema is Yin Edema that is caused by internal injury. This chronic edema can manifest as either Spleen Yang Deficiency or Kidney Yang Deficiency. The treatment focuses on warming and tonifying Spleen or Kidney Yang and promoting the transformation and discharge of extra ‘water’ in the body.
During the treatment, needles are placed in the unaffected limbs as well as the back and abdomen to avoid the possibility of infection in the affected tissue. Acupuncture can be administered on the same day as massage treatment and the order is irrelevant. Generally it is recommended that the patient receive treatments twice a week until improvement is achieved and then a maintenance program is designed for each individual.
If you would like to book an appointment please contact me:
Andrea Wingrave, R.Ac.
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