Tips & Tricks

To Pump or Not to Pump?

Once the standard for lymphatic treatment, the benefits of compression pumps are becoming largely questioned within the lymphedema community. Why is that? And what, exactly, do pumps do?

Let’s start with the basics: A compression pump is an inflatable garment for the arm or leg. An electrical pneumatic pump fills the garment with compressed air, inflating and deflating at different intervals and providing cycles of compression on the limb. They are not meant to open up lymphatic passages, but rather offer an alternative to bandaging.

An example image of a man wearing a compression pump on his legs.

Aria Degillio, a reader here at The Lymphie Life, had begun using a pump a few months ago. Every day before bed, Aria would pump her leg for an hour, and enjoyed the decrease in swelling that resulted. Emails between us flew back and forth, and she enthusiastically recommended that I get one, too.

If you asked Aria if she recommended the pump today, however, her response would be very different. A couple days ago, Aria went to a lymphatic specialist in Michigan. He told her that the pump was a bad idea because it removes the fluid but not the solid particles, therefore speeding up the hardening of the tissue. Talk about bad news!

It’s true that pumps can cause complications and further damage to the lymphatic system, although there have been improvements made upon the old models. For example, there are newer devices referred to as intermittent pneumatic compression devices that are designed for the leg or plantar region of the foot.

If you are interested in getting a pump of your own, it’s important that you talk to a lymphedema specialist or doctor first. As with anything, success really depends on the correct usage of the right pumps, as well as a commitment to maintaining the treatment.

What do you think, lymphies? Have you used a pump before? What is your experience with them? Share your stories in the comments below!

18 comments on “To Pump or Not to Pump?

  1. Jim Miller

    I have avoided the pumps myself not so much for the issues you present (very interesting, by the way) but for two other reasons. One, I have “Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) that causes my lymphedema leg to get extremely agitated most times when wrapped or in a pump AND when I’m sitting still. Wrapped and active – no problem. Wrapped and resting or sleeping – big problem. The leg just wants to dance and bounce and move all night. Same when I have a lymph pump – the leg just twitches and jumps inside the bag. Reason number two, I am afraid I’d lose the independence that wrapping gives me if I become dependent on a pump. I can carry wrapping materials all over the world with me. The pump? Not so much. I tried the original Wright Lymphedema Pump for several years before RLS took hold. While the new pumps are smaller and lighter,they still could lead to you losing your “wrapping skills” if you weren’t diligent about continuing to wrap. A friend at our LE support group uses the new pump for his leg and swears by it, so definitely look into it and see your specialist. It might work for you; then again it might not.

    • Aria Degillio

      Dr. Riutta out of Beaumont Hospital in MI was adamant about my not using it. He said that wrapping was the only way you’ll get reduction without solidification. I know, I know. The pump seemed like a magic bullet to me; I could slip it on for an hour and read, talk on the phone, or even sleep (I am fortunate in that lymphedema is the only medical issue I have). And my leg was getting slimmer, but my foot was getting harder, which is a very BAD thing! Pumps are primarily for vascular use. If your lymphedema stems from a vascular problem, then by all means I’d say to look at pumps. But Dr. Riutta spoke very knowledgeably about the dangers of relying on a pump. He’s the first doctor I’ve ever talked to who specializes in the lymphatic system. Please, please, PLEASE talk to a lymphatic specialist (not a salesperson or a physical therapist, with all due respect) before buying one!!!

    • VIRGINIA MIERS

      I have RLS and have had it for years but on a med for it. I have had no signs or symptoms of the problem with my going on the pump.

  2. Hi there, what a great blog, just recently discovered it! I have had Primary Lymphedema in my right leg for just over two years now.

    It’s interesting with the pumping issues. I believe pumping acts somewhat similar to MLD, but as you say, it is all about correct usage of the right pump and it is very important to manually open up the lymphchannels before pumping. I am no expert, but I find it hard to imagine that it could be bad if pumping as gently as a set of hands. The settings I use are 30 seconds of pumping, then pausing for 10. Pressure 40-50.

    I have a Pulse Press Multi 12 and though it does do something I am not impressed with this machine. This pump works by inflating from the foot upwards, but only the first time, then it inflates all over at the same times, which doesn’t make sense to me. Therefore I have recently borrowed a LymphaPress Mini and tested, and it was clearly different and much better. I felt that especially my foot and ankle felt completely drained and the tissue went very soft, also in the lower leg. I am currently waiting to try a LymphaPress Optimal which sounds really flash with a pre-pumping program etc.
    I dont believe the man on the picture is doing himself a favour by sitting with his leg and foot downwards when he is trying to push lymphfluid upwards. Also, it is important to ensure free access through the groin by not bending the hip too much. I usually lie down on my sofa when pumping.
    I am no expert, but I wouldn’t think pumping was meant as a substitute for wrapping but a “do-at-home” alternative to MLD. Maintainance. Exercising the lymphfluid, keeping it from building up and eventually growing hard or converting into fatty tissue. I carry bandages with my on travels, and I sometimes wrap myself at home after pumping.
    I too have a blog where I have some posts about pumping – and other things. Maybe we can learn from each other. I am looking forward to follow your blog.

    Kind regards,
    LymphedemaGirl
    http://www.lymphedemagirl.blogspot.com

    • Sorry for not responding sooner, but, gosh! Your blog is wonderful! I have already bookmarked your post about clothing – so helpful. I’m glad you shared it.

      So you find the LymphaPress to be helpful? I’m so wary of pumps in general, although I DO like the idea of draining the fluids in a way that’s a little more effective than regular MLD. I haven’t been seen by a lymphedema specialist in a while, though, so perhaps I’m a little overdue for that..

  3. Thanks for taking the time to share. Keep it up.

  4. hi,

    Couldn’t resist making a comment here. The reason why pumps were recommended and then not has more to do with the dangers of causing genital and abdomen swelling in lower limb lymphoedema more than anything going hard. (Your foot is more likely to go hard than the top of your leg due to it being further away from the primary lymph nodes draining the leg. Also, when using a pump and/or some other therapy, the treatment works from the top down, so your foot is the last to show improvements). Anyway, research into this showed that old pumps (like in the picture) could cause new swelling due to them pumping all at once and overwhelming the lymph system (the problem was they were too effective and moved the fluid too quickly for the body to handle). Newer pumps like the lymphapress use a sequential movement that mimic the movement already in the body (from foot to thigh) and is gentle by not holding the pressure for longer than 30sec (26s on and 4 sec rest).
    New research shows that the pumps work rather like MLD in stimulating lymph flow and are safe to use if prescribed by a lymphatic specialist.

    Right, that’s my 5cents worth!

    • Hi, Melissa,

      Thanks for clearing that up. It’s good to know that they’ve got newer ones that are gentler – I probably should have looked into that further when writing this post!

  5. Pingback: That’s a wrap! | The Lymphie Life

  6. Pingback: New study shows benefits of compression pumps for lymphedema patients | The Lymphie Life

  7. Annette

    I have lymphoedema in my r leg I have wraps and a Velcro brace but like I told them it falls down the brace it slides down my leg and the wraps don’t hold the fluid up and it hurts near my ankle and foot meet so I end up unwrapping and if I don’t wear it my leg swells so bad it hangs on the floor and I can’t walk so I was wondering if the leg machine would work

    • Hi, Annette,
      I’m sorry to hear about the struggles you’re having with your wraps! It sounds very difficult and frustrating. Could you talk to your lymphedema therapist or doctor about other options that could better serve your needs? If the wraps and brace aren’t staying up or providing enough compression, could you perhaps get a compression stocking? Before you speak to your medical team about getting a compression pump, I would probably get your regular compression sorted out first as it’s important to put on your wraps or stockings as soon as you finish a pump treatment, otherwise the swelling will return.

      I am not a doctor so I can’t advise you on your personal treatment—however, I support you in talking with your lymphedema therapist or doctor about your other treatment options!

      Best of luck and be well,
      Alexa

  8. What are your opinions on the Air Relax Compression Device? I travel a lot and am looking for a good portable device that will not break the bank. If you like it which mode setting do you use.

    • Hi, Deb,
      I’ve not used the Air Relax before, and am admittedly not super familiar with it — I’m sorry! I do have experience using the CircuFlow by Devon Medical and FlexiTouch by Tactile, although I’ve never traveled with either… I’m afraid I’m not much help here :(

      If you’re on Facebook, I’d recommend posting in some of the lymphedema support groups to ask around and see if anyone has used the Air Relax, or if they have experiences travelling with pumps in general. (If you need links to any groups, let me know!)

      Be well,
      Alexa

  9. Full Disclosure, this is a commercial message from NormaTec Medical: We agree that using the right pump correctly for your specific condition is key (as our founder, Laura Jacobs, M.D., Ph.D. stated: “no single antibiotic cures all infections”). Pump technology from all manufacturers has come a long way recently in, e.g., new garments, pressure waveforms that more closely replicate the natural physiologic mechanism of the body’s “muscle pump”, increased functionality and smaller, lighter units more suitable for travel. More information on the newest option available (since Feb. 2017) can be found at http://www.normatecmedical.com.

  10. Lisa Overly

    I’m wondering if you can sleep with leg pump on.

    • Hi, Lisa,
      Usually the pump is worn for thirty minutes to an hour at a time. I would definitely check with your lymphedema therapist or doctor to be sure!

      Be well,
      Alexa

  11. Alison Jefferies

    I just got my pump for my arm today. It automatically shuts off after an hour and my doctor said that I could sleep in it. A friend with a pump said that her therapist said to walk around after pumping, but my therapist disagreed.

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