How to Resolve Post-Surgical Swelling

October 1, 2018

At times, swelling from an injury or surgery does not resolve quickly. Sometimes we can go for months without resolution, which can be enormously frustrating. I’ve seen such delays in healing after foot surgeries such as bunionectomies and foot reconstruction. It can be a similar story for knee, hip replacement, arm and low back surgeries. Left unchecked, swelling from cosmetic surgery can also linger for months.

The good news is that there are effective ways to help move swelling and “stuck” tissue fluid. My tool for this is working with, and treating, the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is mostly responsible for moving excess fluid out of the body in the case of injuries and surgeries.

What Stimulates Lymphatic Flow?

A few important factors stimulate lymphatic movement. Muscle movement, such as activating our muscles and joints, is primary. Breathing plays a big role too. The deeper the breath, the more the breath supports lymphatic flow. When we are injured, movement and deep breathing are not typical parts of our home care. In many cases we shouldn’t move too much. Typical recommended care is RICE: rest, ice, compress and elevate. While these steps can help mitigate pain, ice slows lymphatic flow and does little to get fluid moving or address the trauma aspect of the injury.

What Slows our Lymphatic Flow?

Just as there are ways to encourage lymphatic flow, certain situations will slow down the flow of fluids. Trauma to our body can slow it down. Surgery, while usually immensely helpful and even lifesaving, is a form of trauma. Typically, lymphatic flow around a surgical site is sluggish for the first few weeks.

Another way that lymphatic flow is slowed is through a past injury. This can range from an event a few years prior to our surgery or as far back as college, high school or even elementary school. If we’ve had a past injury that was significant enough, we may go into a surgical situation not knowing that our lymphatic system has been compromised. To us it might seem to be working fine. However, if our system is compromised enough and we go ahead with surgery, swelling can linger at our injury site far longer than it should.

Conditions that contribute to poor lymphatic flow:

Car Accidents
Hit or fall to the head
Chronic neck tightness
Brain surgery
Years of sitting too close to the computer
Chest Impacts
Falls on outstretched arms
Abdominal Surgeries
Birth complications
Low back Surgeries
Hip Surgeries
Falls to the hip

Lymphatic Drainage Therapy will increase flow

There is another way of stimulating lymphatic flow besides moving our bodies and deep breathing. This is through skilled manual therapy, or Lymphatic Drainage Therapy. A skilled therapist can assess how well your system is draining in different areas of your body. He or she can assess the strength and flow rate, which will direct them to an effective plan to get the lymphatic system (fluid) moving again.

How the Lymphatic System increases

According the Medical Physiology Book by Guyton and Hall, the lymphatic system can increase its flow rate for short periods of time for as much as 500- 900% above the typical resting rate. This is why lymphatic hands-on therapy can have such a positive affect. Hands-on treatment can move a significant amount of lymph and excess fluid (swelling) away from your injury site in a relatively short amount of time. As fluid moves away, space is increased. That movement decreases pressure at the injury/ surgery site and decreases pain since pain receptors are no longer being pressed upon. Bruising is decreased, and joint movement increases. All of this therapy assists the body in its own natural healing. As movement is restored, there is once again room for a healthy exchange of CO2, O2, nutrients and metabolic waste products to flow in and out of the region.

Swelling is a normal part of the healing process, though it can be problematic if it lasts too long. The body can perceive injuries and surgeries as trauma, which can slow down recovery. Lymphatic drainage is supportive to anyone following a surgical procedure that causes significant swelling. A pre or post-surgery assessment can help identify how much you might benefit from lymphatic drainage to avoid potential complications, minimize scar tissue and ensure the speediest recovery possible.

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