It is well appreciated that environmental and behavioral factors such as diet, stress, sleep, and fitness can significantly alter our susceptibility to infection. Typically, when we think of these factors either enhancing or suppressing immune system function, we think of them altering the behavior of our infection-fighting white blood cells: our Leukocytes and Lymphocytes. While these specialized cells are clearly the all-stars of our immune team, proper immune function requires more than just their game-day readiness. For starters, they need to show up to the game in the first place! Individuals suffering from chronic swelling such as lymphedema have just this problem – a reduction in the circulation of infection and cancer fighting white blood cells.
Lymphedema is a form of chronic swelling that occurs in localized areas of the body (such as in a limb) due to impaired lymphatic system function. The lymphatic system normally acts to transport excess fluid back to the heart for redistribution. Congenital lymphatic deficiency or lymph node damage / removal during cancer therapy can disrupt this system, resulting in local fluid stagnation and the characteristic swelling. Since white blood cells rely on proper fluid circulation for transportation, it is not surprising that lymphedema-affected limbs exhibit weak immune response, altered transportation of white blood cells, and increased risk of both local infection and cancer. But can this depressed immune activity be recovered through decongestive therapy, a treatment that reduces lymphatic swelling but does not repair the underlying lymphatic system damage? A small pilot study published this past month (Szolnoky, G. et al. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2012 Jul 23) examined this very question:
The authors took eight patients with breast cancer-related lymphedema and exposed a small area of their normal and lymphedematous arms to a protein derived from the tuberculosis bacterium. They measured the resulting immune response and found, as expected, that it was suppressed in lymphedematous arms relative to healthy arms. Next, they treated patients with manual lymphatic drainage and compression therapy over a two week period and re-tested immune response. Patients receiving therapy not only experienced a significant reduction in limb size, but also a substantial boost in immune response – and in only two weeks.
This study and the related body of research suggest something very poignant to individuals suffering from chronic swelling: not only is there a direct negative relationship between swelling and immune function, immune activity can be boosted almost immediately through effective management practices such as manual lymphatic drainage massage and compression.