Have you recently undergone lymphatic venous anastomosis (LVA) surgery for lymphedema, or are considering it? As with other forms of surgery, appropriate preoperative preparation and postoperative care is necessary to achieve optimal results.
LVA is a relatively new surgical approach for treating lymphedema, and so pre- and postoperative protocols are not yet standardized. Through helpful discussions with LVA surgeon Dr. Siba Haykal and her group at the University Health Network in Toronto, here we describe our current understanding of what could be done before and after LVA surgery to enhance patient outcomes.
What is lymphatic venous anastomosis (LVA)?
In recent years surgeons have begun exploring lymphatic venous anastomosis (also known as ‘lymphaticovenular anastomosis’) surgery for treating early-stage lymphedema. Rather than a cure for lymphedema, LVA is intended to help patients reduce baseline swelling and make ongoing symptom management easier. In other words, for some patients LVA surgery may be a viable complement to the current ‘gold-standard’ approach to lymphedema treatment which consists of managing symptoms and preventing progression using Combined (or ‘complex’) Decongestive Therapy (CDT).
Lymphedema arises due to a fluid imbalance caused by damage or malformation of lymphatic structures (lymph vessels and nodes) in the affected tissue. The result is an accumulation of excess fluid (‘lymph’) which if left unmanaged will worsen and cause additional tissue changes such as chronic inflammation, tissue fibrosis (scarring) and localized immune system dysfunction. The goal of LVA is to connect (or ‘anastomose’) still functional lymphatic vessels to a nearby small vein, thereby enhancing the drainage of stagnant fluid out of the tissue. To learn more about LVA surgery and its effectiveness, please see our article: Lymphatic Venous Anastomosis (LVA) Surgery for Lymphedema.
Although the available clinical data on LVA is relatively small, and best practices are still being formulated, there is a strong theoretical and clinical rationale for robust preoperative and postoperative surgical protocols.
Preoperative preparations for lymphatic venous anastomosis (LVA)
Preoperative protocols are steps performed before surgery that can help increase the likelihood of an optimal surgical outcome. In the case of LVA surgery for lymphedema the following preparations should be made, typically with the assistance of a CDT therapist:
- Set realistic expectations through discussion with your surgeon. As with every medical procedure, patient satisfaction is immutably linked to patient expectation. LVA surgery does not cure lymphedema, nor is it likely to eliminate the requirement for ongoing symptom management. In some cases, patients do not report a significant improvement in their symptoms. Learn more about what you should expect from LVA surgery.
- Achieve maximum limb volume reduction prior to surgery through conservative approaches (CDT). Reducing your swelling (both volume and tissue density, if present) as much as possible in advance of surgery will encourage more rapid post-surgical healing and decrease the risk of infection. This is likely to require increased compliance with self-massage, massage by a CDT practitioner, and/or compression bandaging. Maximal limb volume reduction in advance of surgery will also allow you to establish more accurate baseline measurements.
- Establish symptom baseline measurements. This includes having a CDT therapist take circumferential measurements (standardized measurements every 4 cm on both arms); document tissue quality of the limb including pitting, density, and fibrosis; and recording subjective experiences as it relates to the affected limb (both sensory and functional).
- Establish a plan for immediate postoperative symptom control which should include traditional compression bandaging (it is important to make sure the necessary bandaging supplies are on-hand, or available from your CDT practitioner). Learning and employing self-management CDT techniques, and/or ensuring that adequate follow-up care with a certified CDT therapist is booked and ready to go. See more below.
Postoperative care following lymphatic venous anastomosis (LVA)
Postoperative protocols are steps performed after a surgery to assist healing and increase the likelihood of an optimal outcome for the patient. In the case of LVA surgery for lymphedema the following postsurgical steps are vital for ensuring the best possible results:
- Follow-up with a CDT therapist within a few days of surgery is ideal, to examine any acute stage changes, to record objective and subjective measurements, and to ensure an adequate management plan is in place. Learning when and how self-massage should be re-initiated post-op is essential.
- Concerted CDT management twice a week for 4-6 weeks consisting of regular lymphatic drainage massage and bandaging. The style of lymphatic massage differs from classic lymphatic massage in that it promotes flow in the direction of the newly created lymphatic-venous junctions. Both the massage and bandaging can be performed by the patient if trained and able, or by a certified CDT practitioner.
- Regular reporting on outcome measures including circumferential measurements taken every 2 weeks, any tissue quality changes and changes in the patient’s subjective experience.
- Follow-up with compression garment fitter to accommodate changes in limb volume or shape.
- Continue with routine lymphedema self-management moving forward.
Achieving an optimal outcome
LVA surgery will hopefully offer you concrete symptom relief while making ongoing symptom management easier, but it is not a cure. Equally important to understand is that LVA surgery will not in itself prevent further disease progression since the underlying lymphatic dysfunction remains. Poor post-surgical management of the remaining swelling is likely to lead to a gradual worsening of symptoms and progression of the condition, even beyond pre-surgical levels.
Appropriate pre- and postsurgical care is essential not only in order to achieve the greatest volume reduction and symptom improvement possible, but also in order to ensure that you keep any of the gains you have made.