Certified Lymphedema Therapist Talks About Profession in Honor of Lymphedema Awareness Month
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jennifer Kirkpatrick: My name is Jennifer Kirkpatrick and I am a physical therapist and a certified lymphedema therapist. I graduated from physical therapy school in 1996 and I obtained my lymphedema certification in 2001 so I’ve been treating lymphedema patients for over 20 years. I’m currently working with our team of lymphedema experts at the Vanderbilt Dayani Center.
What inspired you to become a physical therapist and work in the lymphedema field?
JK: I always knew I wanted to work in healthcare but was a little unsure in what field specifically. When I went to college I was exposed to various professions in the healthcare field and spent some time observing and volunteering in various PT (physical therapy) settings and decided that was exactly what I wanted to do.
It wasn’t until I was out of physical therapy school and moved to the Nashville area that I was exposed to the lymphedema population and lymphedema treatment. I spent some time volunteering with some of our therapists who provided that care and just fell in love with that patient population. I didn’t want to do anything else but treat lymphedema patients.
What have you noticed in changes to how lymphedema has been treated over the year? What’s better? What’s the same?
JK: The gold standard of care for lymphedema patients was, is, and will continue to be complete decongestive therapy which consists of a lot of patient education because this is a chronic condition and we want patients to understand how to manage it lifelong. It also involves manual lymphatic massage and compression therapy.
Although that’s the gold standard, a lot of things have come along over the 20 years that we can now add as treatment tools with complete decongestive therapy to get better outcomes and faster results. One of my favorites is elastic taping, or Kinesio taping. There are very specific taping techniques that you can use to help with swelling reduction and I use this daily in my practice. One of my favorite places to tape is on the torso, in the armpit area, or upper quadrant where patients have swelling. When used and combined with a compression bra, a compression cami, a swell spot, and the tape we can reduce swelling faster in that area.
Another tool that we have at Vanderbilt is a machine called PhysioTouch. It’s a negative pressure device and the way I explain it to patients is it’s like a very gentle form of cupping that we can use in combination with lymphatic massage. It is very effective in treating areas where the tissue is tight and fibrotic. It can soften that area and it can also help with lymphatic circulation so we use that with our hands-on techniques and can get faster and better results.
Some other things that are now available that weren’t available 20 years ago are surgeries that patients may or may not be a candidate for. It’s lymphatic bypass surgery with or without a lymph node transplant. That is now available as an option to treat lymphedema and there is a surgeon at Vanderbilt who is currently performing that surgery. Compression garments have come a long way in 20 years. We have better fabrics, more comfortable fabrics, the fabrics are more breathable and tolerable for patients, and now look less medical. You can get fun colors, you can get tye-dye, and you can get patterns, so that also helps with compliance with long-term wear of compression.
What is a piece of advice you would give to someone who is going through lymphedema treatment?
JK: I think the best piece of advice that I can give to a lymphedema patient is they need to understand that this is a chronic, lifelong condition that needs to be managed and what we do in therapy alone is not going to be enough. They need to learn strategies while they’re in therapy that they can use at home for long-term management. They should be learning how to perform self-manual lymphatic massages. They should be getting decongestive home exercise programs from their therapist. Very importantly, they should be working with the therapist and the fitters at Pretty in Pink to obtain compression. If they need to learn how to self-bandage or need nighttime compression, that’s also a very important component.
How do companies like Pretty in Pink Boutique help throughout the lymphedema treatment process?
JK: The saying that it takes a village is absolutely true with the lymphedema patient population and Pretty in Pink is a very important part of the patient care team. When we’re treating and working with patients who have lymphedema, they provide all types of compression garments: compression garments for your arms, for your legs, for torso compression, daytime garments, nighttime garments. They really are the best at what they do and being able to work with, communicate, and collaborate with the fitters at Pretty in Pink, we can usually problem-solve through whatever fit issues or garment issues the patients have. Because it’s such an important part of their long-term management, we want to make sure that they’re in a comfortable garment, that the garment is effective, and then they’re gonna be using it.
How do you work with Pretty in Pink Boutique?
JK: I work very closely with Pretty in Pink and I’m in constant communication when I have a patient who needs compression. I will usually make a very specific recommendation for what compression I would like to have the patient in. There are so many options as far as different fabric types. Some fabrics offer more containment than others. There are also different compression classes and based on your patient’s age and activity level we are making recommendations for what is going to maintain them, either prevent swelling, the onset of swelling, or prevent the swelling from increasing when they’re wearing these garments. There’s a lot of factors that we take into consideration and we’re constantly communicating with the fitters. If issues arise, we try and get it right the first time, but sometimes there’s a little bit of trial and error to figure out what’s going to work for a specific patient, the fitters have great ideas and we can communicate and problem solve and come up with what’s going to work best for the patient and give the patient the best outcome for success.
Pretty in Pink Boutique
If you or a loved one is struggling with lymphedema, Pretty in Pink Boutique is here to provide support. Call them at (615) 777-PINK or email [email protected] and let them know how they can help!