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.
Research suggests that certain activities may reduce one’s risk of developing lymphedema by helping to maintain a healthy flow of lymph. Maintaining a 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 a 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.
Sit or stand.
Draw your shoulders up towards the ears, as you inhale. Exhale and release. Repeat slowly, at least ten times.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.