Kristy Packard, PT, DPT, CLT was in physical therapy school when she was first introduced to lymphedema therapies during one of her clinicals. She was amazed by the quick results patients could achieve, helping them gain healing, greater mobility and a sense of normal life.
Today, Kristy is a licensed physical therapist with a doctorate in physical therapy serving patients in our community with Rehabilitation Services of Bates County Memorial Hospital. On her second day on the job at BCMH, she signed up to take classes for lymphedema therapy certification. She has been treating lymphedema patients at BCMH since October, 2021.
Lymphedema is a condition marked by localized swelling to a part of the body, usually an arm or a leg, and is caused by damage or blockage to the lymph system. The most common cause of lymphedema is a result of cancer (a tumor) or cancer treatments (surgery or other treatments) that directly affects lymph nodes, but any condition that blocks the drainage of lymph fluids can cause lymphedema.
The main characteristic of lymphedema is swelling, leading to other symptoms like itching, burning, and a feeling of tightness. The swelling also causes the skin’s health to be compromised; it may thicken, harden or develop a pitted appearance, and wounds can be difficult to heal.
Kristy treats patients by wrapping their affected limbs with special bandages that provide support yet allow them to flex and move freely without too much restriction. The bandages help massage the area, moving the built-up fluid in the direction it was intended to go. With just one treatment, most patients see a big difference.
“I just found it fascinating. You get results very quickly. From one treatment to the next – it can be a day or two – and when they come back you can unwrap their legs you can see automatic improvement in their swelling. It’s just fun to watch the patient’s reaction, because they may have had this swelling for five ten years, and they say ‘oh my gosh, my legs look better than they’ve ever looked.’ To me, that was really rewarding, just to help patients that quickly,” Kristy said.
There is no cure for lymphedema, but some of its symptoms can be improved with therapy and specialty garments. Other symptoms of lymphedema can be reversed, such as fibrosis of the skin, and wounds.
“When you get that decrease in swelling you bring the surface of the skin closer to the blood flow of the limb, and the blood flow can bring nutrients to the surface of the skin, and it can heal itself, and clear out any kind of inflammation and bacteria,” Kristy explained.
When lymph nodes have been removed, patients are considered to be in stage 0, or the latency stage, of lymphedema. Kristy has worked with oncologists who send their patients after they have recovered from surgery or cancer treatments, and before swelling starts, so they can be taught and fitted for a garment.
“It could take years to show any symptoms, but inevitably it’s going to happen,” Kristy said. “Once they start to see the first signs of swelling, they need to start treatment because it’s much easier to start early on, and they won’t need as much treatment.”
At every step along the way of providing lymphedema therapies, Kristy is teaching her patients. She teaches them how to massage the affected limb, how to put on a garment, how to take it off, what to do to avoid or treat skin issues, what to look for, and many other strategies and exercises that help them manage their symptoms at home. She also works with medical vendors to find just the right garment – and any related devices – to enable the patient to put on their garment by themself.
Lymphedema therapies also help patients regain their life.
“There are so many people who come in who say, ‘My legs are so heavy that it just takes so much energy to get up and walk to the bathroom.’ Kristy says. “I get to help them regain their mobility, and that to me is so rewarding, because they also feel better about themselves – whether it’s the look of their extremity, or just being able to move better.”
Kristy says this is born out when she gives her patients a survey at the end of their treatment, and questions include how they feel physically, mentally and emotionally regarding their condition. Commonly, patients will respond with the positive changes they experience regarding their self-image, like feeling free to go out again and engage with others socially.
Kristy said, “Just being that resource for them is important. They have to be their own advocate and manage on their own, because these sessions are limited – and this is something they’re going to have for life. I’m here to help them learn how to manage that.”
A physician’s referral is needed for lymphedema therapy. Schedule an appointment with Kristy Packard by calling 660-200-7073, or learn more about Rehabilitation Services at www.bcmhospital.com/services/rehabilitation-services/