Improve Functionality with Lymphedema Exercises

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Maintaining a healthy lymphatic system is in everyone’s best interest. It’s not just for patients diagnosed with the lymphatic system disorder, lymphedema. The lymphatic system consists of a network of vessels and nodes — plus the spleen. These vessels and nodes are present throughout the body, roughly paralleling the more familiar blood circulatory system.

But there’s one key difference. While the blood circulates under pressure and is assisted by the regular contractions of the heart, the lymphatic system is passive. Without a centralized pump, like the heart, it must rely on contractions from ordinary skeletal muscle to assist the flow of lymph. 

Lymph is a clear, protein-rich fluid that drains from the spaces between cells, all over the body. White blood cells, primarily situated in the lymph nodes, help trap and eliminate foreign substances that may be present in lymph. Thus, the lymphatic system is an important component of the overall immune system.

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that develops in a specific affected area of the body, such as the arm(s) or leg(s), primarily due to damage to certain components of the system in that localized area.

Lymphedema Exercises

Research suggests that certain activities may reduce one’s risk of developing lymphedema by helping to maintain a healthy flow of lymph. Maintaining healthy body weight is one. Engaging in regular exercise is another. Even if a person is diagnosed with lymphedema, performing regular exercises can help encourage healthy drainage and minimize its effects. By focusing on overall lymphatic system wellness, regular exercise may also help slow the progression of the condition.

Among other exercises, we recommend a full-body stretching routine. These “lymphedema stretches” are an important component of overall lymphatic system wellness. To be clear, stretching helps move lymph throughout the lymphatic system. Other strategies that help include drinking plenty of water or other liquids throughout the day, eating a healthy diet, maintaining healthy body weight, and reducing stress.

The following stretches can be performed by just about anyone. They are not particularly strenuous but consult with your doctor first if you have any questions or concerns. Keep in mind that exercises should not be painful or otherwise distressing. On the contrary, they should leave you feeling more relaxed.

Shoulder Shrugs 

Sit or stand.

Draw your shoulders up towards the ears, as you inhale. Exhale and release. Repeat slowly, at least ten times.

Neck Rotations

  • Neck -From a seated or standing position, keeping the spine straight and upright, turn your head slowly to the right as you inhale.
  • Hold for five seconds.
  • Return to the forward-facing position, as you exhale.
  • Repeat on the left.
  • Do this five times for each side. 

Hip Abductions

  • From a prone position (lie on your back, on a carpeted floor, ideally), stretch your legs out in front of you.
  • Slide your right leg to the side, as you inhale. 
  • Return the leg to its original position as you exhale. 
  • Repeat with the left leg. 
  • Repeat on each side for a total of five times with each leg.

Ankle Pumps

  • From a prone position (on your back, on the floor), keep your arms and legs straight and on the floor.
  • Flex the ankle as you inhale. 
  • Extend the ankle as you exhale. Point the toes. 
  • Repeat with both legs, ten times each. 

Bent Knee Fall Outs

  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor.
  • Lower the right knee to touch the floor on the right side. Move slowly, and remember to breathe.
  • Return the leg to its original position.
  • Repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Repeat five times with each leg.

Deep Breathing

All of these exercises emphasize mindful, deep breathing. Deep breathing actually coaxes lymph out of the tissues and back into lymph vessels by altering the pressure in these areas.

Gentle Yoga

Many yoga asanas (positions) can be excellent for encouraging lymph drainage. These exercises are typically done slowly, mindfully and with a focus on the breath. Consider attending a class with a qualified instructor, or purchase a DVD with gentle routines you can follow at home.

All the Rest

If you are reasonably fit, there’s no reason you cannot continue your accustomed exercise routine. Walking, running, swimming, etc. are all good choices for maintaining flexibility, fitness and a sense of wellness. Exercise reduces stress and boosts feel-good hormones. Again, consult with your healthcare practitioner if you have any questions, before starting.

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  1. I especially like to do Pilates on a Reformer. It encourages breathing and stretches every part of your body as you move from stretching from toes to hips, back and shoulders. It isn’t as hard on my joints as walking and I get a more vigorous exercise. Some people with lymphedema find that swimming or water yoga or water aerobics isn’t possible with a thigh high stocking unfortunately.

  2. As a patient of lipidemia I am so grateful that you posted these exercises and gave information on Pilates and yoga. I was not aware that the disease can progress to a worse condition. I am hoping by doing these exercises and pilates and yoga that I will maintain my position in my disease. I am presently using what I call bags on my legs to push the fluid up and out of my system. This was recommended by my lymphedema doctor Who is a vein doctor. My regular PCP had no clue of why my feet were getting bigger and bigger thank God I had the sense on my own to see a vein doctor.

  3. All the above remarks are so true it’s a shame that we have to search out a doctor on our own. My PCP had no clue either I on my own seeing a vein doctor thank God I had sense enough to do that. Yes I have the bags and the support hose which definitely help I try to do as many of the exercises as I can. I have what they call a QB which is similar to a bike exercise to keep my blood flow going. Be sure to take deep breaths when using your bags to eliminate the l y m p h buildup

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