Spreading awareness about lymphedema


It's a chronic disease affecting around 10 million Americans - and many don't understand what lymphedema is.

“Lymphedema is the abnormal accumulation of protein in the tissue in the area underneath the skin and above our muscles,” Ralph explained. “Sometimes when you are born with it, it can be a genetic cause that maybe you don’t have any lymph nodes in a specific part of your body. Or, maybe you have too many of too few or for whatever reason, the lymph nodes are not functioning the way they should be.”

The chronic condition causes swelling which can appear on any part of the body. Skin in the affected area becomes thick, coarse and heavy.

“When you first get lymphedema, it might not show up in terms of a swelling," she said. "You might just find that an arm or a leg or your head and neck can feel heavy and achy and you might have some pain."

Although lymphedema affects up to 10 million Americans, according to the Lymphatic Education and Research Network, awareness of the condition is lacking.

“It’s so misdiagnosed," Ralph said. "People don’t know what it is."

There is no cure for lymphedema, so Ralph treats her patients with what she called the tried and true method - complete decongestive therapy. This includes a massage technique called manual lymph drainage and bandaging on the swollen part of the body.

Microsurgeries are an option for some lymphedema patients. Dr. Tae Chong, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the University of Colorado Hospital, specializes in one such surgery called lymphatic venous bypass.

“Not enough people know that we are offering it,” said Chong, who is one of the few surgeons who perform that surgery in the state of Colorado.