Lymphedema and Exercises
Exercise for Lymphedema Benefits Supported by Studies
Bonnie B. Lasinski, MA, PT, CLT-LANA
Exercise and lymphedema - it is a controversial subject
How is lymphedema and exercise viewed today? How many clinicians are at a loss for words when they are asked about what kind of exercise is "good" for individuals with lymphedema? How many individuals living with lymphedema or a limb at risk for lymphedema have asked their healthcare professional for advice concerning exercise only to receive conflicting information? It is difficult to "recruit" presenters to provide workshops/discussions on lymphedema and exercises for both patients and professionals alike. Exercise and lymphedema - it is a controversial subject.
Our Nearly 30 Years of Research on Exercise for Lymphedema
Twenty-nine years ago in 1980, I was asked to do a presentation on exercise after mastectomy for a one day seminar sponsored by the American Cancer Society's Long Island Division, entitled "Living With Cancer". When I contacted the coordinator of the workshop, Diana Rulon, she informed me that she was not "interested in exercise after mastectomy - she was interested in exercise for lymphedema!"
We presented a very basic, common sense talk on lymphedema, trying to define it in simple terms (no small feat when the literature was so poor - the definition at that time was a 2 centimeter difference between forearms - as if that was the only place one could have lymphedema!). Next, Diana presented some practical suggestions for nutrition that she had found helpful to her and several other women she knew. Finally, I wrapped up the session with some very basic information on lymphedema and exercise progression and then opened the floor for questions.
In 2009, although the medical management of lymphedema has come a long way, thanks in great part by the advocacy of Saskia Thiadens and the NLN and many others, there is still much work to do. Basic and advanced research on the effects of exercise as a lymphedema risk reduction modality must be explored.
The basic criticism of the precautions about exercise for lymphedema contained in the Risk Reduction Guidelines is that they are "anecdotal" at the present time, due to the lack of controlled double-blind studies to prove their efficacy.
Some medical professionals have taken the position that the individual with a limb at risk (or with lymphedema) should go ahead and pursue whatever exercise/activity they wish and "see what happens". Unfortunately, lymphedema is a chronic condition, which, presently, has no cure.
While it is true that not all individuals who have had lymph node disruption (surgical or radiological) will develop lymphedema, until physicians can better predict who is at greater risk for lymphedema, a prudent approach to exercise for lymphedema is advisable. In the case of individuals with primary lymphedema or established secondary lymphedema, working up to a level of exercise that promotes fitness while avoiding exacerbating the lymphedema is a good goal.
Exercise for Lymphedema makes Medical Sense
I'm sure that some of you may have been told in the past that you should not exercise if you have lymphedema, or that certain types of exercise are contraindicated if you have lymphedema. This is not the case. I would like to review some basic principles of anatomy and physiology and pathophysiology of lymphedema and how these relate to exercise and lymphedema.
Basic principles behind occurrence of lymphedema
Lymphedema is a problem of excess water and protein
Our lymphatic system, in addition to filtering out waste products, helps our bodies maintain fluid balance so that we are neither dehydrated nor edematous.
Up to 90% of the water component of our blood that perfuses the capillary network and nourishes our cells returns to the heart via the venous system.
The 10% (or more) that is left behind in the tissues along with the extracellular protein that filters out of the capillaries, can only return to the heart via the lymphatics. That 10% (or more) can amount to up to 2 liters a day. While 2 liters may not seem like much, it adds up day after day, if there is impairment in lymph drainage.
In addition, the extracellular proteins can only return to the central circulation via the lymphatic vessels. The diameter of these molecules is too large to fit into the openings in the vein walls - the openings in the lymphatic vessel walls are large enough for these protein molecules to enter easily.
So lymphedema is not only a problem of excess water remaining in the tissues, but of excess protein that remains in the tissues as well. Unfortunately, the body always moves for a state of balance so it actually tends to pour more water into the tissues to "dilute" this protein concentration - thus a vicious cycle develops. This problem is compounded by the fact that the white blood cells called macrophages, which are part of our immune response, do not work properly in the lymphedematous fluid. This is why anyone with lymphedema is at increased risk for infection in his or her affected limb.
Relation between lymphedema and exercise
What does all this have to do with exercise? A review of the acute and chronic effects of exercise is helpful to understand how the limb at risk or a lymphedematous limb might respond to various types of exercise. The acute responses to exercise include increases in heart rate, stroke volume, cardiac output, blood flow to active muscles, systolic blood pressure, arteriovenous oxygen difference, ventilation, oxygen uptake, and a decrease in blood pH and plasma volume.
Chronic adaptations to exercise include biochemical changes in skeletal muscles, decreased resting heart rate, decrease in total body fat, blood lipids, and the density and strength of bone and connective tissue.
During exercise, blood is redirected to the muscles. At rest, only 21% of the cardiac output goes to the muscles, compared with as much as 88% during exhaustive exercise. As the body heats up, an increasing amount of blood is directed to the skin, to conduct heat away from the body core.1 Remember that lymph transport has to be equal to or greater than lymph load. When you exercise, your muscles need extra blood to supply the oxygen needed for your muscles to do the work of the exercise. Extra blood flow means that extra water will remain in the extracellular spaces needing transport via the lymphatic system.
So exercise for lymphedema may be beneficial, however the question is how much is too much? That is very individual. It is important that any exercise program be gradually progressed to avoid sprain/strain. More importantly, a slow progression allows the individual to monitor their affected limb or limb at risk for any sensation of aching or fullness that could indicate an overwhelming of the lymphatic system.
Lymphedema and Exercises are specific to each individual
Benefits of exercise for lymphedema
Exercise for lymphedema is best done with compression
Exercise for lymphedema is best done with compression on the affected limb either from compression bandages or compression garments. The bandages provide a new "tight" skin for the muscles to contract against, assisting in pumping the lymph out of the extremity into the central circulation. When lymphedema exists, the remaining lymph vessels that are functioning are working double time to try to carry the load. These vessels become over dilated (stretched) and eventually, their walls can overstretch and fail, causing a worsening of the swelling.
Wearing compression bandages/garments provides support to the skin and to the lymphatic vessels directly under the skin, called the superficial lymphatic network. It is these vessels that help to carry the load when the larger vessels have been cut away from the lymph nodes or have been damaged due to trauma or chronic venous disease, or in the case of primary lymphedema, when there are too few large lymph collectors in a region due to improper vessel/node development during fetal growth
Certain types of exercise are considered higher risk
Of course, certain types of exercise are considered higher risk than others for individuals with lymphedema. For example, high speed activities like tennis, bowling and racquetball, place more stress on the upper limb while jogging, stair-climbing machines, downhill skiing, water skiing, football, soccer place more stress on the lower extremities or have higher injury risk than other activities such as swimming, brisk walking, and cycling. That is not to say that someone with lymphedema of the leg should not jog for exercise, or that the person with lymphedema of the arm and hand should not play tennis or golf.
It is also important to know whether an individual was skilled at a sport/activity prior to their developing lymphedema. A sport-specific exercise program can be developed for the individual to build strength, flexibility and endurance in the muscle groups most used in that sport/activity. Ultimately, the decision to "play" should be an individual one, but an informed one.
Things to consider regarding lymphedema and exercise
Exercise for lymphedema is one component of the treatment for lymphedema. You’ll find more information here on other components of Comprehensive Lymphedema Treatment with our certified lymphedema therapists.
Lymphedema and Exercise Case Studies
Case Study of Upper Body Exercise for Lymphedema
A series of case reports published in the Journal of Surgical Oncology3 challenges the theory that vigorous upper body exercise is contraindicated for individuals who have had axillary dissection during surgery for breast cancer. The study followed a group of 24 women for 9 months. These women were recruited to participate in a training program to prepare for competition in the World Championship Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dragon Boat racing involves strenuous repetitive upper body exercise. 18-20 women paddle 40-60 foot boats for a distance of 500-650 meters. Circumferential measurements were collected on 20 of the 24 participants (limbs were measured at 4 places) pre training, at the start of the racing, and 7 months after the races.
According to the authors, only two women, who had pre-existing mild lymphedema, had increases in their upper arms (5/8 inch) and none of the other participants developed lymphedema. One of the authors of the study, herself a breast cancer survivor participated in the program. Regarding lymphedema and exercise, the authors conclude that strenuous upper body exercise may not cause lymphedema or worsen a pre-existing lymphedema.
It is important to note in this lymphedema and exercise study that the participants in this study completed a two-month training program of stretching, strengthening, and aerobic exercises prior to engaging in the actual strenuous activity of Dragon Boat racing.
Many individuals who undergo breast surgery/axillary dissection/radiation are not enrolled in supervised progressive exercise programs like the participants of this study. Providing structured, individualized exercise programs should be a goal of all centers that perform cancer surgeries. The at risk/limbs with lymphedema should be measured periodically to insure that there are not subtle volume changes that may not be visible to the individual.
While I do not discourage individuals from participating in sports and exercise, I do caution them that they should consider themselves "athletes" in the "game" of life. As such, each individual should engage in a stretching/strengthening program to prepare them for full participation in whatever activity they choose.
Case Study of Weight Training Effects on Lymphedema
Ahamed et al in 2006 examined the effects of supervised upper and lower body weight training on the incidence and symptoms of lymphedema in 45 breast cancer survivors who participated in a supervised, graduated program of exercise twice weekly for 6 months. None of the participants experienced a worsening of their lymphedema or a triggering of lymphedema in their at risk limbs.
Schmitz et al in 2009 assessed the safety of a graduated exercise program on 295 survivors with breast cancer related lymphedema (BCRLE) and 154 at risk for lymphedema. Their results were similar, demonstrating that individuals who are at risk for lymphedema or who have lymphedema can participate in exercise, provided it is progressed slowly and their limbs are assessed for any signs of increased or developing swelling throughout the program and the program is modified accordingly for each person.
The key is proper evaluation and assessment for signs of swelling, tightness, or skin and tissue changes, before, during and after exercise.
A related study that we conducted can be found here involving Upper Extremity Lymphedema Secondary to Breast Cancer. The study involved patients with unilateral upper extremity lymphedema secondary to axillary node dissection (accompanying lumpectomy or mastectomy for carcinoma of the breast). It was done to evaluate the persistence of reduction in lymphedema following a single course of Complex Lymphedema Therapy.
Please write us any questions or concerns you may have about treatment options at Lymphedema Therapy.
The physicians and certified lymphedema therapists at Lymphedema Therapy are experienced in these assessments. For more information, contact our center at 516-364-2200
Marvin Boris, MD