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Lymphedema and exercise

Main Line Health Newtown Square July 28, 2014 General Wellness By Julie Caldwell, MPT, CLT

Your lymphatic system is an important part of keeping the body healthy, moving protein-rich fluids through your body to remove bacteria, viruses and waste. But when these fluids don't move through the body, a patient can experience lymphedema, a chronic condition that results from inadequate lymphatic drainage. Although lymphedema can have a variety of causes, it is most frequently found in cancer patients. At least 20 percent of breast cancer survivors develop lymphedema, and head and neck cancer, melanoma and gynecological cancers have also been linked to the condition, often as a result of surgery or radiation.

For this reason, many cancer patients seek the help of a certified lymphedema therapist during their recovery. A therapist can help conduct complete decongestive therapy, better knows as CDT. CDT involves draining the lymph nodes manually, bandaging the affected area, and a fitting for a compression garment to help encourage drainage. These steps are critical, as ignoring excess fluid build-up can result in increased infections, pain, arm sensations and other distress, but they're not the only steps to take.

Patients with lymphedema are also encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercising daily can reduce lymphedema flare-ups, and the combination of exercise and compression garments will help the body's natural fluids to return to the circulatory system, which can reduce swelling.

Exercising with lymphedema

When exercising, there are a few key points to keep in mind: it is important to have good posture and a proper-fitting bra and compression garments. A high-quality exercise program should consist of both aerobic strengthening and flexibility exercises.

Aerobic conditioning with light resistance tends to reduce flare-ups of lymphedema. Exercises like Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong and aquatic exercises are all aerobic exercises that have health benefits.

While performing strengthening exercises, weights can be gradually increased, but should never exceed 10–20 pounds. If you've never exercised or strength trained before, start with a lower resistance and increase your reps before you add weight. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, breast cancer survivors with lymphedema who participated in slowly-progressive weight lifting resulted in reduced lymphedema symptoms and recurrence, and an increase in strength. Adding stretching exercises to your routine will help preserve range of motion and minimize skin scarring. These stretching exercises are especially important during post-op and radiation for cancer patients.

Keep in mind that exercise, for those at risk for lymphedema, should be customized to fit their needs. At any point in time, if there is any discomfort, pain or increased swelling stop all exercising and consult a doctor.

Taking care of lymphedema is a lifestyle change. With regular check ups with your doctor and lymphedema therapist, fluid volumes can be decreased, and flare-ups and infections can be prevented. Exercise and education are the keys to keeping your lymphedema maintained. To find the nearest Main Line Health lymphedema therapist near you, call 484.227.3045.

Julie Caldwell MPT, CLT is a physical therapist at Main Line Health Newtown Square.