Having just returned from Hawaii, I want to share the issues surrounding the care needed to reduce the risk of lymphedema when travelling by air.
If you have had breast cancer, whether recent or a long time ago, you may not be aware that it is wise to wear a prevention compression sleeve when travelling by air. Here is an excerpt from a position paper ‘Air Travel and Lymphedema’ distributed by The National Lymphedema Network.
‘The cabin pressure that is experienced during air flight is less than the atmospheric pressure on the ground. During flight, cabin pressure decreases from sea level to the low air pressure found at between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. The decreased pressure within the plane’s cabin may give rise to increased swelling in a lymphedematous limb as tissue pressures are physiologically altered. (1; 2) Changes in fluid production in the tissues occur when the external pressures exerted on the limb are changed. (3) Diminished pressure in the airplane cabin will result in a decrease in the fluid moved in to the lymphatic system. The fluid will remain in the extracellular spaces and an exacerbation of lymphedema may result. (4) The use of the compression garments will provide external pressure on the extremity to adequately support favorable resorption and decrease the potential for fluid accumulation in the tissue. (5) The use of compression may prevent worsening of pre-existing lymphedema and is recommended for those with lymphedema during air travel. (6) Compression bandages will potentially increase the interstitial tissue pressure and enhance the muscle pump in the lymphedematous extremity. The beneficial outcomes are two-fold. First, resorption of fluid at the capillary level is enhanced due to the compression. Second, the garment or bandages stimulate the lymphatic system, via the muscle pump, and uptake of extracellular fluid increases, helping to prevent an exacerbation of lymphedema.’
Wearing the compression sleeve not only supports your arm while in the air, it serves as a physical reminder to take care when lifting and handling luggage. The compression sleeve also alerts others to your situation and many offer help with the heavy lifting.
It pays to be careful and take precautions to reduce the risk of getting lymphedema. Once you have lymphedema, it is a chronic issue which you will need to manage for life.