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.

Compression Care

If you or a loved one is struggling with lymphedema, Compression Care is here to provide support. Call us at (615) 583-2273 and let us know how we can help!