There was once a time when people thought that exercise was out of the question for lymphedema patients. If anything, it was thought to possibly exacerbate symptoms. Recent studies and continued research, however, show that certain types of exercise can, in fact, be beneficial in managing lymphedema.
These days, doctors and other lymphedema professionals are far more likely to encourage you to exercise to help manage your symptoms. That’s because exercise works with the body’s lymphatic system to help circulate lymph as nature intended. The lymphatic system is like a parallel circulatory system.
Exercise Helps Combat Symptoms
With one key difference: Your blood relies on one very strong, reliable muscle to ensure its circulation, under pressure, throughout your body — the heart. Unfortunately, your lymphatic system has no such advantage. Rather, it relies on muscle contractions within each vessel. These muscle contractions are also stimulated through walking, moving, running, swimming, etc. — assist by squeezing your tissues and lymph vessels, promoting the flow of lymph.
As a gentle exercise, swimming can help to accomplish this beneficial massaging activity, promoting the recirculation of lymph and helping to reduce the accumulation of lymph in affected tissues. Women who have developed lymphedema of the arm subsequent to breast cancer therapy, for example, may be able to manage their symptoms by spending time in the pool performing simple water therapy exercises. This can involve something as simple as walking against the water using one’s arms and legs, or reaping the benefits of swimming by doing the crawl or breaststroke.
Water Works Wonders
Water therapy is especially gentle on the body, joints, and muscles because our bodies experience relief from the effects of gravity in water, while also benefiting from the effects of resistance against as one moves through this liquid medium. Even if you are not an adept swimmer, chances are you can benefit from spending time in the pool. It may not be necessary to wear your compression garments while swimming, although you should consult your doctor or lymphedema specialist first.
The hydrostatic pressure from the water can serve to replace your compression garment, provided the affected limb remains underwater. If your arms will be out of the water most of the time, however, consider wearing an arm sleeve while swimming, or swimming compression shorts, if appropriate.
Several clinical trials have been conducted, or are presently underway. They have incorporated some of the following pool-based activities:
- Walking against water at hip depth
- Performing squats in the water
- Performing lateral hip abductions (raising the leg sideways in water)
- Performing rowing motions in water
- Swimming laps at one’s own pace
- Lifting arm weights while standing in chest-deep water
- Using buoyancy vests or pool noodles to facilitate flotation in the water while exercising
- Do not enter pool water if you have recently undergone irradiation, as your skin may be especially sensitive to chlorine.
- Do not enter the pool with an in-dwelling PICC line, as this could introduce infection.
- Consider seeking out a therapy program at your local YMCA or other pool, designed for cancer survivors.
- Stay out of hot water. Water hotter than 94° F (34° C) may make lymphedema worse. Skip the hot tub and stick with cool pool water.
- Protect your feet from fungal infections by wearing appropriate footwear to and from the pool.
- If the pool is out of doors, be sure to wear appropriate sunscreen.
- Check with your oncologist before starting any new exercise program.