Lymphedema is a chronic condition that may occur after the delicate vessels and/or nodes that comprise the lymphatic system become damaged and fail to drain properly. The lymphatic system parallels the blood circulatory system.
But unlike the more familiar circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not rely on a central pump — the heart — to keep fluids moving along. Rather, it is a passive system, which depends on muscle contractions from ordinary movement to coax fluid out of tissues and back into lymphatic vessels for recirculation.
Lymph nodes are situated at certain key points along these pathways. These are places where the filtration of lymph occurs, and immune system cells that help fight infection are produced. The lymphatic system also plays an important role in absorbing fats. Nodes can be found in many places throughout this extensive network of vessels. In total there are up to 700 nodes in the typical human body.
Lymph Nodes in the Neck
Some of the most notable sites of nodes are along the trunk and in the chest, groin, and neck. In fact, most of us will only ever become aware of the existence of these nodes when something goes awry and they become swollen.
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are probably familiar to most people who endured certain childhood infections. The clear fluid known as lymph rejoins the blood circulation in the upper chest, where the lymphatic vessels connect with the veins adjacent to the collarbones.
The proper flow of lymph depends on undamaged vessels and nodes. The system is assisted by muscle contractions that occur throughout the day during normal activities of daily living. It’s no wonder, then, that certain exercises can help lymphedema patients control their symptoms.
Lymphedema of one or both of the legs is not uncommon. And many notable cases of lymphedema affect the arms of women who have undergone treatments for breast cancer. Lymphedema of the neck is also a possibility. In fact, lymphedema can affect just about any part of the body, provided damage to local lymph nodes and/or vessels has occurred.
Exercise Can Help Manage Lymphedema
Sometimes lymph node damage is related to treatments for head or neck cancer. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgeries may all affect the integrity of lymphatic vessels and nodes in the neck. If you have been diagnosed with lymphedema of the head or neck, you should be aware that certain stretches, combined with specific exercises may help you take control of your lymphedema symptoms.
Exercise helps squeeze the lymphatic vessels and encourages the proper flow of lymph throughout the system. Of course, exercise has other benefits as well. It helps keep the blood circulatory system healthy, improves sleep, elevates mood, and boosts strength and flexibility. It can help you feel better in general. It should be noted that contrary to old, outdated beliefs, exercise does not cause or make lymphedema worse.
Specific Exercises for Head and/or Neck Lymphedema
Keep in mind that none of these activities should cause pain. They are designed to promote beneficial stretching and help with drainage. Forget the notion of “no pain, no gain”. That adage does not apply here.
These are specific exercises for people with lymphedema of the head and neck. Any exercise you enjoy doing, such as walking, is also beneficial. Remember to go slowly and deliberately.
Stand tall, in front of a mirror if possible. Turn the head slowly from left to right, keeping the shoulders and back relaxed. Repeat slowly, for a total of five to ten times.
Again, it may be helpful, at least initially, to stand before a mirror for this exercise. Looking forward, slowly tilt the head to one shoulder, keeping the shoulders still. Hold for at least two seconds. Return the head to the upright position and then tilt to the opposite shoulder. Hold for at least two seconds. Repeat, five to ten times.
Chin to Chest
- Standing upright, slowly bend the chin toward the chest until it touches.
- Hold for two seconds.
- Return your head to its upright, forward-looking position.
- Repeat, five to ten times.
- Standing tall and upright, shrug your shoulders up and down.
- Bring them up to your ears, then let them drop, relaxed.
- Repeat five to ten times.
Mouth and Jaw
These exercises consist of motions that might resemble “mugging for the camera”:
- Open and close your mouth repeatedly, like a fish.
- Pretend to blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
- Smile. Make it bigger than life.
- Speak the vowels a, e, i, o, & u out loud, in an exaggerated manner.
- Move the jaw from side to side. Repeat.
- Without tilting the head, move the lower jaw forward. Return and repeat.
- Repeat each of these activities several times.
Other Helpful Tips
Experts recommend that you sleep with two or three pillows, to elevate the head and help promote drainage while you’re asleep. Gentle, meditative exercises, such as those encountered in a typical “gentle yoga” class, may improve mobility, reduce pain, and help instill a sense of calm. Approach all exercises slowly and patiently. This is not about suffering. It’s about relieving discomfort.