My Experience with the Flexitouch Pneumatic Pump for Lymphedema

To pump or not to pump…that is a question that I hear in the lymphedema community. When I developed secondary lymphedema from breast cancer treatment in 2010 I asked my therapist about compression pumps. She explained that compression pumps force air into sleeves with multiple chambers. The chambers take turns filling up with air with the goal of moving excess fluid out of the affected limb and returning it to the cardiovascular system. My therapist wasn’t very keen on the use of these pumps and stated that they can sometimes hinder rather than help lymphedema. She advocated instead for daily manual lymphatic drainage and the wearing of compression garments. I met other therapists here and there and all of them preferred manual lymphatic drainage, MLD, over the use of pumps.

So for almost every night for the next seven years I sat down and performed MLD on my left arm. Then one evening last fall when I was arriving at a SWELL lymphedema support meeting I heard a buzz in the air. Words like “new kind of pump”, “different than the old types”, “favorable studies”, and “Dr. Rockson” floated to my ears. I knew Dr. Stanley Rockson of Stanford University was performing a drug trial with a medication called Uberimex for the treatment of lymphedema so I was keenly interested in learning what he said about this new pump.

The pump is called the Flexitouch® System by Tactile Medical. I subsequently found out that Flexitouch had actually been around for several years but a new study had brought awareness to this pneumatic compression device or lymphedema pump. The study, published in October 2015 and authored by Pinar Karaca-Mandic, PhD, Alan T. Hirsch, MD, Stanley Rockson, MD, and Sheila Ridner, PhD, RN, showed promising results when a patient used the Flexitouch System for one year.

According to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), In the 12 months following the receipt of the Flexitouch APCD: Cancer-related lymphedema patients demonstrated a: 79% decline in the rate of cellulitis, 29% reduction in the rate of out-patient hospital visits, a 30% reduction in rate of physical therapy, and a 37% reduction in lymphedema-related costs. Non-cancer related lymphedema patients demonstrated a: 75% decline in the rate of cellulitis, a 40% reduction in the rate of out-patient hospital visits, a 34% reduction in rate of physical therapy visits, and a 36% reduction in lymphedema-related costs.

My interest in pumps suddenly skyrocketed! I’ve always been diligent about caring for my lymphedema but if there was a product that could further the health of my left arm, I was going to investigate. A friend who was using the Flexitouch for lymphedema in her legs directed me to Alexis, the sales representative for Flexitouch. In my home, Alexis helped me slip into a padded bolero type jacket with a long sleeve for my left arm.  Another set of pads enveloped my left thigh and trunk. I was rather startled at how wrapped up I was. Michelin Man came to mind as I stretched out on the couch. For an hour, the air chambers inflated and deflated sequentially, creating a wave-like motion. The whole process, though limiting my ambulation, was comfortable and relaxing.

I didn’t make a decision to purchase a pump that day. I wanted to talk to some people who had actually used the pump. I chatted with a woman from Tacoma and another from Idaho. Prior to using a Flexitouch, the Tacoma woman had at least two to three bouts of cellulitis a year, some requiring hospitalization. Since using the Flexitouch for almost a year, she had not experienced cellulitis. The woman from Idaho said her arm was softer and found the machine easy to use.

My insurance company required me to use a different brand of compression pump and experience failure before they would consider covering the cost of a Flexitouch. I decided to purchase one without insurance. Buying a reconditioned machine saved me some money. The warranty was the same as a new machine.

I’ve had my Flexitouch for almost five months. I use it every evening. If I’m out late, I use it in the morning and then resume again in the evening. I always start with the one hour full arm and core setting. Since my trouble spot is below my elbow, several times a week I use the 22 minute forearm and hand setting. Reading or watching TV are the activities I’m able to do while I’m being treated.  It’s also a relief not to manually MLD my arm every night. As one Flexitouch woman put it, it’s like finally getting a dishwasher to do your dishes.

What do I think about my Flexitouch, or spacesuit as my husband and I affectionately call it? I’m  glad I have it. I did a baseline measurement of my left arm before treatment and three weeks after using the pump. Except for my wrist, all my measurements showed reduction. Most significantly was the reduction in my forearm. Surprisingly, my therapist’s measurements showed minimal difference with previous measurements. I can’t explain that but I can visually see a difference.  Out of my sleeve, my 3/4 length sleeves aren’t as tight. My skin appears more like the skin on my right arm. Also, when I am out of my sleeve for special occasions, the knuckles of my hand are still showing after a few hours. This all proves to me that my Flexitouch is moving lymphatic fluid out of my lymphedema affected areas.

Managing my lymphedema requires attention and an assortment of tools. I’m diligent in taking care of myself because I want to continue to pursue activities that enrich my life. Adding the Flexitouch compression pump to my daily lymphedema care regime has helped me attain that goal.

Karen Gillespie

(Note: There are other well regarded pumps on the market. This is not an advertisement for Flexitouch.)


6 thoughts on “My Experience with the Flexitouch Pneumatic Pump for Lymphedema

  1. I am delighted to say that hubby’s minor leg swelling, from his diabetes and hefty build, are significantly less – after Flexi-Touch was added to his health regime by the Diabetes Clinic at the VA Hospital. I like to joke, “Honey, time for me to put the squeeze on you..”. He will recline, watch tv, or sometimes he is so relaxed he briefly dozes off. The sores he used to get on his legs are healing faster; he says he doesn’t feel anywhere near as sluggish. Looking at his ankles there IS no swelling now. Along with testing his blood sugar, taking his meds, and a sensible diet/exercise part of a complete diabetes maintenance routine? Thumbs up for Flexi-Touch!!

  2. Yay! Thank you for sharing your husband’s success with a pump. Yes, taking care of one’s body requires several interventions. I’m curious, was your husband diagnosed with lymphedema or was his leg swelling due primarily to diabetes?

  3. The leg garments that I received are for a much taller person. They only measured the circumference of my thighs and calfskin, not the length, so now I am STUCK with a non-refundable almost 9K system that is too long for me. I am on a fixed income and have to pay almost 1K for something that Tactile Medical SHOULD have measured for…they’re the experts and SHOULD have measured correctly. I really need this system and had such desperate hope. I need help but there’s a no return policy.

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      I’m sorry for the experience you had with Tactile Medical. I did send them an email and asked them to look at your case again. I don’t know if it will make a difference. I would suggest you keep contacting Tactile Medical. Try contacting different people. My best to you.

  4. I have have been blessed to have the Tactile newest machine for lymphedema in both my legs. In the last year and a half I was getting cellulitis in my right leg about every 3-4 months and the last straw was in both. You have to speak up for yourself because my doctor would have just let me keep getting it and pumping me full of antibiotics. Actually they don’t know much about lymphedema. I have been thru way to much of trial and error doctors and a lymphedema physical therapist which was a joke. I was told purchased high priced left garments which I don’t think I needed. There is more to the whole story but bottom line is if you have this machine it changes everything they think they know about lymphedema! My insurance paid for all of it and the Tactile rep will help you get that. I use it everyday for an hour. I have skipped 1 or 2 days just 3 or 4 times since March. I don’t like that I have to do it but it has changed my legs back to normal. I didn’t need a lymphedema physical therapist but too much to explain here. I am in very early stages but it will only get worse if not taken care of, so be kind and good to yourself.

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