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What’s the deal with Lymph Drainage Exercises

Can you exercise with Lymphadema?

Lymphedema may be the most overlooked complication of cancer surgery and treatment. It refers to the swelling produced by an accumulation of lymph fluid in the tissue, following the removal of or radiation to the lymph nodes. 

The location of the swelling will depend on where the removal/radiation took place. With breast cancer the swelling occurs in the arm of the affected side, due to damage to the lymph vessels in the armpit area. For prostate, or other lower extremity cancers, the swelling can occur in the abdomen, pelvis, leg or foot. 

When the lymphatic system has been injured, due to lymph node dissection, removal or radiation therapy, the lymph can become backed up with fluid – a breeding ground for bacteria that can result in infection. Over the long term, accumulation of this fluid can result in tissues that become thick, and hardened.  

Unfortunately if you’ve had lymph nodes removed or irradiated, you’ll be at risk of lymphedema your entire life – even 10, 20 and 30+ years after getting the ‘all clear’. 

The good news is that with the proper education and care, lymphedema can be well-managed, and even prevented altogether. 

Exercise to Manage Lymphedema:

The amount of lymphatic fluid that is transported through the affected areas is directly related to the blood flow in the area. Heavy lifting, extreme temperatures and vigorous repetitive movements will increase both blood and lymphatic flow to the affected area very quickly. Because exercise can involve heavy lifting, an increase in body temperature and repetitive movement, extreme care needs to be taken if someone is at risk of lymphedema. 

However when performed with consideration, exercise in itself is a helpful tool to manage lymphedema. A gentle increase in circulation can help to stimulate the lymphatic system.

Because of this, it is key to build up exercise intensity very gently. Even someone who considers themselves a seasoned athlete will need to start from scratch so that they know when they’re at their limit. 

Lymph Drainage Exercises

Lymph drainage exercises are a great tool to prevent exercise-induced lymphedema. These are specific movements that aim to drain the fluid from the affected limb. It is crucial that anyone who is at risk of lymphedema performs lymph drainage exercises before a workout, or training session. 

It is suggested that lymph drainage exercises are performed after a 5 minute gentle aerobic warm up, and before the ‘main body’ of the workout. 

Preventing Lymphedema During Exercise

Other recommendations to prevent lymphedema during exercise include:
1. Deep breathing – this further stimulates the draining of the lymphatic system

2. Wear any prescribed compression garments as per the recommendation of your doctor

3. Keep alert for changes in the affected limb during exercise. If you notice any swelling, redness or soreness, stop what you’re doing, wait for it to go down and either change exercise or reduce intensity as you/your exercise professional finds appropriate. 

If you’re uncertain about exercise after a Cancer diagnosis, try finding a local Cancer exercise specialist and join a group class or 1-1 sessions.