Health Watch: Small tools bring big results for Lymphedema

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Lymphedema is a condition where excess lymphatic fluid collects in tissue. This causes swelling in various parts of the body but is most usually found in the arms, legs, breast area or chest wall. As it worsens, ulcers, infections and decreased mobility may occur.  Lymphedema is not curable, but it is manageable with proper treatment. For years, that’s included non-invasive methods such as physical therapy, exercise, compression, wrapping or manual drainage. However, these may not be effective, particularly in advanced cases.

Dr. Kyle Xu is a plastic, hand and micro-surgeon at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital who says, “You can be born with an abnormal lymphatic system, which is congenital. It can be from cancers. It can be from surgery to treat the cancers, like breast cancer where you have a lymph node disection which can damage the lymphatic system.”

Despite proactive management, some cancer patients are at greater risk for lymphedema due to damaged lymph nodes following cancer treatment.

Recently, two microsurgical options have emerged.  Dr. Xu is now offering lymphedema patients a permanent solution to a painful problem.  “Just like if a road is blocked, we are able to bypass so you can get off the road. It is the same kind of idea.”

SLUCare plastic surgeons are some of the few surgeons offering these two treatment options:

1) Vascularized lymph node transfer surgery to treat patients with advanced lymphedema affecting the skin tissue in the arms or legs. Working lymph nodes from another part of the body are transferred to the damaged site, where the existing blood vessels that supply the nodes are then connected.

2) Lymphaticovenular bypass surgery for patients with mild to moderate lymphedema. It involves shunting, or moving, fluid from several dilated lymphatics in the affected limb to adjacent venules (tiny veins) to reduce pressure.

Any patient (except those with active cancer) with lymphedema is a potential candidate for microsurgery. The best results have occurred in cases of early-stage lymphedema.

Dr. Xu says there is no cure for lymphedema, but he can help restore function and quality of life.

To learn more about SLUCare Plastic Surgery options and Dr. Xu, click here.


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