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Pneumatic Pumps for Lymphedema

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A pneumatic pump — also called an intermittent pneumatic compression pump — is a machine that has an inflatable sleeve or vest-like garment attached to it, with multiple chambers (like balloons) that inflate one after the other to stimulate the flow of lymph in the right direction.

Depending on the type of pump used, this would either mean sitting up or lying down. For pumping the arm, you would sit upright in a chair next to the pump and insert your arm into the sleeve, which looks like an arm-length blood pressure cuff. For the chest, or trunk, you may be sitting up or lying down depending on the make of the compression garment, which is like a vest or jacket. Then you would switch on the pump for pumping sessions that could last up to an hour.

Pneumatic pumps were considered a mainstay of treatment before complete decongestive therapy (CDT) came into wide use, but now they’re generally not recommended as stand-alone treatment. Experts vary widely in their opinions about the safety and effectiveness of pneumatic pumps, so you should ask your lymphedema therapist for his or her opinion. Some research studies have shown that pumping is effective for some people when used in addition to the main treatment plan. A pump might be used during the active phase I of CDT or as part of the phase II home-care plan intended to maintain those results.

Pneumatic pumps can be quite expensive, running anywhere from $800 up to $3,000-$5,000 — and even if covered by insurance, you’ll likely have to contribute some portion of the cost. If your lymphedema therapist recommends at-home use of a pump as part of your treatment plan, rent one first to try it out. If you and your therapist find that it helps significantly, then a longer-term rental or even a purchase may be worth it, depending on your financial situation. Whether you’re renting or buying, you’ll need a prescription for the pump from your lymphedema therapist. It’s never a good idea to try pumping on your own without first discussing it with a certified lymphedema therapist.

Just as with all other forms of lymphedema treatment, your therapist will show you how to use the pump and tailor the settings, pressure, and pumping action to your needs. He or she also will tell you how frequently to use the pump and for how long. Some people make the mistake of thinking that “more pressure=better results,” but in reality, lighter pressures are usually best. Stick with whatever your therapist recommends and don’t make any changes without asking.

Although pumping helps many people, there have been some cases in which pumping leads to hardening of the tissue at the very top of the arm (fibrosis). It’s thought that the lymph is propelled there by the pump but then starts to build up, leading to tissue changes. Be sure to call your therapist if you notice anything unusual. Your best bet is not to rely on pumping alone to treat lymphedema, but use it in combination with other therapies.

Some makers of pneumatic pumps include:

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