Lymphedema is a chronic condition categorized as either primary or secondary. Primary lymphedema is an inherited condition, while secondary lymphedema is caused by some sort of injury to the lymphatic vessels, often seen in women who have had surgery for breast cancer 1. While there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be improved through a variety of therapies 1. Aromatherapy, in combination with other treatments, has garnered interest in recent years for the impact it may have on the quality of life of persons suffering from lymphedema 1.
Your lymphatic system contains vessels and nodes throughout your body. The lymph vessels gather fluid made up of proteins, fats, water and waste from your cells and filter them through the lymph nodes. When the vessels and nodes are damaged or removed, the fluid accumulates and causes abnormal swelling, usually in the arms or legs. Women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, specifically an axillary dissection which involves the removal of some or all of the lymph nodes on the affected side, are susceptible to lymphedema, according to the National Lymphedema Network 1.
Aromatherapy is an ancient practice involving the use of essential oils and is thought to affect or improve the functioning of your immune system. Now a popular form of alternative medicine, clinical aromatherapy uses both the medicinal and therapeutic properties of essential oils. Essential oils have long been recognized for their anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, notes author Jane Buckle. They are derived from a variety of natural substances including plants, flowers, roots, leaves and bark, and are extracted through distillation. An oil is categorized as essential because it has the distinctive scent or essence of the plant. They are thought to improve your mood by affecting your sense of smell, considered the most primal of the five senses.
Treatment for Lymphedema
Treatment for lymphedema usually involves manual lymph drainage or MLD, where through gentle massage performed by a trained physical therapist, the lymph fluid is drained from the affected area and returned to the circulatory system. This technique was developed by Danish doctor Emil Vodder in the 1930s and is sometimes referred to as the Vodder method. MLD can be used in combination with a compression garment, which promotes the natural drainage of the fluid and prevents swelling. Women who have had breast cancer surgery may have to wear a compression sleeve on the affected arm.
Essential oils can be used in combination with traditional treatments for lymphemdema to improve quality of life. Jane Buckle, in her book "Clinical Aromatherapy 2. Essential Oils in Practice," suggests some oils may play a role in the management of lymphedema, although not prescriptive 1. Oil of Passiflora incarnata or passion flower can improve your skin's elasticity, and lavender oil may help to protect the swollen arm or limb from infection due to its antifungal properties. A blend of essential oils can also be applied under a compression garment or bandage to help to keep the tissue soft.
Essential oils should never be used on your skin in their undiluted form, as they can cause irritation and perhaps even an allergic reaction. They are for external use only and should never be ingested. If you are interested in adding aromatherapy to your treatment regime, you should consult your doctor or physical therapist and look for a qualified aromatherapist.
- Definition of Lymphedema
- Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy. Essential Oils in Practice, New York: Churchill Linvingstone.
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