Exercise plays a key role in both reducing the risk of lymphedema as well as the management of lymphedema.
Lymphedema is caused by an interruption or restriction in the flow of lymph fluid following surgery. Most people are aware of arm lymphedema caused by breast cancer surgery, but leg lymphedema can be a side effect of prostate or abdominal surgeries. Torso lymphedema can happen from neck and throat surgeries.
There are several ways to reduce the risk of lymphedema, however, exercise for lymphedema is extremely helpful and well documented by research.
Here are some important things to remember when exercising:
Open the lymphatic system first. The lymphatic drains are located by your throat and will allow the flow of lymph fluid which will increase with the exercise. The Healthy-Steps program (formerly The Lebed Method) has a wonderful Lymphatic Opening exercise and program for those who may be at risk for lymphedema.
Make sure the exercise movements are slow to medium speed and smooth flowing versus jerky. After surgery, especially if lymph nodes have been removed, the lymphatic transport system will be compromised and could become congested if the flow of lymph fluid is too fast. Think of a superhighway where the traffic is rerouted from four lanes to one lane.
Wear proper compression garments which are designed to assist the flow of lymph fluid (i.e. lymphedema sleeve) during exercise if you already have lymphedema. This includes the gauntlet (glove) to ensure the build up of fluid does not travel to the hand.
This past Monday, I had occasion to attend the Lymphedema Conference organized by the Alberta Lymphedema Association. The guest speaker I heard was Dr. Andrea L. Cheville, Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. Dr. Cheville explained the anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology of lymphedema in clear laymen terms. Over 300 people attended – doctors, nurses, caregivers, suppliers and most importantly, those with lymphedema.
Finally, someone is speaking out about lymphedema and what it truly means for those who either are born with lymphdema (primary) or develop lymphedema from trauma such as cancer surgery (secondary).
If you have an opportunity to attend a similar conference in your area, I highly recommend you go and take as many people with you as are interested. In the United States, you can contact the National Lymphedema Network for associations in your area.
Lymphedema is still not widely understood or acknowledged as a risk of cancer, especially breast cancer. There are guidelines for prevention if known beforehand. The sad thing is that once a person gets lymphedema, there is no cure. So, prevention is key.
So, what is Lymphedema. Here is an excellent video explaining exactly what lymphedema is.
A verbal definition of lymphedema, as stated by the National Lymphedema Network, is:
“Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the interstitial tissue that causes swelling, most often in the arm(s) and/or leg(s), and occasionally in other parts of the body. Lymphedema can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired (primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes removed (secondary).
When the impairment becomes so great that the lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues of the affected area. Left untreated, this stagnant, protein-rich fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size and number, but also reduces oxygen availability in the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides a culture medium for bacteria that can result in lymphangitis (infection).”
Lymphedema can occur in the upper and lower extremities (arms and legs – and even torso). You are at risk if you have had surgery for cancer that involves removal of lymph nodes. For more detailed information, read the following books about Lymphedema.
Over the next few posts, I will be covering some the issues related to lymphedema and cancer.