The Benefits of Arm Exercises for Lymphedema Patients
The arm(s) are among the most common sites affected by lymphedema. This chronic condition primarily affects women. Women who receive treatment for breast cancer often undergo radiation therapy or surgical removal of tissues to eradicate their tumors. Unfortunately, this often involves damaging, or surgically removing, one or more lymph nodes in the underarm area. And that can precipitate the onset of lymphedema.
Even worse, lymphedema can manifest months, or even years, after the conclusion of these treatments. That’s one reason doctors recommend women avoid injuries to the arm on the affected side of the body.
Arm Exercises Do Not Make Lymphedema Worse
It’s understandable, then, that some patients — and even doctors — are reluctant to recommend arm strengthening exercises. But evidence suggests that arm exercises might actually help rehabilitate the arm, making the onset of lymphedema less likely.
In fact, according to breastcancer.org, a recent study found that among cancer survivors who had had five or more lymph nodes removed, there was a significantly lower incidence of subsequent lymphedema when a patient engaged in a program of gradual, progressive arm-strengthening exercises. In other words, engaging in a supervised program of gradually more challenging arm strengthening exercises helped to prevent lymphedema from occurring, even after the removal of five or more underarm lymph nodes.
Appropriate exercises have the potential to help slow the progression of lymphedema, while also helping the patient to regain — and retain — strength and mobility.
Exercise Is Your PAL
In the aforementioned study, known as the Physical Activity and Lymphedema (PAL) trial, it’s interesting to note that women wore a custom-fitted compression garment on their arm(s) while weight lifting. Specially trained coaches supervised the lifting program at a nearby gym. Women performed weight-lifting exercises, beginning with one pound weights, and gradually increased the weight lifted, for 13 weeks.
The study also concluded that even among women who did develop lymphedema, the condition did not worsen after weight lifting. In fact, these women experienced some easing of lymphedema symptoms and less progression of the condition than women with lymphedema who did not engage in any exercises.
Follow Advice — And Wear Your Compression Sleeve
It’s now clear that engaging in structured arm-strengthening exercises after breast cancer treatments is a good idea. There’s a persistent fear that exercising an affected limb could make things worse, but that is not the case. On the contrary, exercise helps.
Note, however, that you should always wear a compression sleeve while lifting, even in the absence of current lymphedema, and you should start with small weights (approximately one pound), then gradually build to larger weights. Ask your healthcare provider for guidance before beginning your program of exercise. Be sure to visit our product catalog for all of your exercise compression garment needs!