Why is my arm swollen after mastectomy?
Mastectomy from breast cancer can present multiple challenges in and of itself as the tissues heal and the shoulder is initially limited to lifting. If your mastectomy involved lymph node removal, there is a 20-30% chance that you may develop lymphedema. This is a fluid build up in the lymphatic system near the surgical site, into the arm of the affected side, often down to the wrist or fingers. The result winds up in a “heavy arm” with symptoms that can range from just pressure and/or fullness, to numbness, achiness, and pain that limit use of that arm.
To move waste fluids away from the damaged area, lymphatic massage, which uses a gentle pressure, can help. It’s one technique used to reduce lymphedema. Immediately following lymphatic massage, it is crucial to apply gradient compression to the limb to maintain appropriate pressure on the lymphatic vessels. This will assist in decreasing fluid retention and stress on the skin to promote mobility. Gradient compression is NOT simply an ACE wrap! It is layers of different compression that apply even pressure to the limb without damaging the lymphatic vessels. Here are the various supplies we use:
Lymphatic massage is NOT something a masseuse does!! You need to see a licensed physical therapist or lymphedema specialist for treatment. They will perform the massage, which takes about 45minutes, followed by application of the layers of compression. After wrapping the arm, you would do very light exercises to further promote strength training while the muscles themselves pump fluid out of the limb and back into your circulation. Your arm will look like this!
In time, you will learn how to sequentially perform the massage on yourself and apply your own bandages so that you can bathe or remove it for a short break.
Lymphedema treatment can last from 4-8 weeks on average, depending on the grade of your lymphedema to begin as well as your compliance with the home program. The goal is to attain a limb girth equivalent to your non-operative side and “graduate” to a custom compression garment, which would fit like a pantyhose sleeve for your arm.
I am excited to work with you!