Published on June 22, 2017

Ayers Joins Aldridge Rehab as Lymphedema Specialist

The general term, “edema,” describes the swelling caused by the retention of fluids in the body’s tissues.

There is, however, a specific condition known as lymphedema, which occurs when the body’s lymphatic system is unable to perform one of its basic functions – the removal of lymph from the body’s tissues. Lymph – a thick fluid made up of water, nutrients, protein, cellular components, lipids (fats), and waste products – can become trapped in one or both arms, or legs, and less often in the head, trunk, and neck.

Once trapped, it causes swelling of the affected area. Swelling can appear gradually for some patients; quite suddenly for others, and range from mild to severely disfiguring. In addition to discomfort, if left untreated or mistreated, tissues with lymphedema are also at higher risk of infection and the tissue may become hardened.

There is no cure for lymphedema. The goal of any therapy must be to reduce the swelling and maintain the reduction.

The Bryant T. Aldridge Rehabilitation Center, on the Nash UNC Health Care campus, recently added Nicole Ayers, OTR/L, CLT, an occupational therapist with special training in treating patients with lymphedema.

Any patient, with a doctor’s referral, can now visit the Aldridge Rehab Center for consultations with Ayers and to receive therapeutic treatments. She will be assisting patients by offering individualized exercise programs, compression dressings, specialized massage, education and training on how to self-manage their health, and other therapies – all designed to help restore sufficient lymph transport throughout the body, reduce swelling, relieve discomfort, and improve their quality of life.

What is the lymphatic system?

Most people have a basic understanding of the cardiovascular system – the pumping heart and vast network of  vessels for transporting life-sustaining blood to our organs and tissues, providing oxygen and nutrients to all of our cells.

The lymphatic system is not as commonly understood, but is an important part of the body’s immune system, our defense against disease. The immune system can offer protection because it is first able to help the body distinguish its own tissues from external substances such as bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other toxins.

The main roles of a healthy lymphatic system, including lymph nodes (small, bean-shaped glands), are to manage the fluid levels in the body, returning excess lymph back into the bloodstream; act as a filtration system against diseases; and fight infections.

Like the circulatory system, the lymphatic system is also a network of vessels running throughout the body, and in fact, is a part of the circulatory system. Without a “heart” for pumping, lymph is pushed through the vessels, in only one direction, by natural body movements.

As the largest organ of the lymphatic system, the spleen is not a pump; it filters blood, recycles old red blood cells, and stores platelets and white blood cells. That’s why someone with a damaged, or removed, spleen is at greater risk of overwhelming infections.

What you need to know about lymph nodes

Most of our 500 or more lymph nodes (or glands) are inside the body and cannot be felt, but when a gland in the neck, groin, or armpit is swollen, it may be possible to locate it with your fingertips. Some nodes are as small as a pin head; others as big as an olive. As lymph fluid flows through the nodes, they trap, filter, and destroy bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances. In addition, lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, fight infection and may cause the nodes to become swollen and tender.

Who gets lymphedema?

Primary lymphedema is present at birth; secondary lymphedema develops from a traumatic injury or dysfunction, with some of the most common causes being surgery, radiation, infection, malignant tumor, and immobility.

In the U.S., the highest incidence of lymphedema (secondary) is observed following cancer surgery, especially for those who undergo radiation therapy following lymph node dissection. In fact, any damage to the lymphatic system, including infection, may lead to lymphedema,“ Ayers explained.

For more information on lymphedema and the treatments offered at Bryant T. Aldridge Rehabilitation Center, call (252) 962.3700.

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Kenyon "K.J." Askew, Jr., Public Relations and Marketing Specialist, at 252-962-8766 or by email.

If calling after hours, please dial the main hospital line at 252-962-8000 and ask to speak with the nursing supervisor on duty and identify yourself as a member of the news media. He or she will be able to assist you.

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