Lymphedema is a specific type of swelling which is characterized by protein-rich fluid retention that occurs in the tissues of our body. Lymphedema typically occurs as result of damaged lymphatics anywhere in the body; this can be from cancer related treatments (surgery or radiation), but can also be from over worked lymphatics due to heart failure, venous insufficiency, and a mix of other causes that can contribute to this specific type of swelling.
There are a number of treatment strategies for treating lymphedema such as manual lymph drainage (MLD), a technique used by trained professionals to direct the swelling away from the involved limb. Another technique is compression, like compression stockings, sleeves, or compression bandages. One more strategy is exercise which plays an important piece to the recovery and rehabilitation of those individuals dealing with lymphedema.
The lymph system, much like veins, does not solely rely on the constant, thumping pressure of our heart beat to transport fluid. Instead, the lymph system relies on small, mechanical valves in tiny vessels that helps to direct fluid back up to the heart to become reprocessed naturally. One of the main contributors to moving this fluid is our muscles. As the muscles contract and relax, they form a pumping action that helps to mobilize that fluid, ultimately sending back to its destination at the heart.
For those experiencing lymphedema, routine exercise can be an effective way of using their own muscle power to not only become stronger and more conditioned from previous cancer treatments, etc., but also force out unwanted swelling through a natural course of action!
Typically when designing an exercise program for someone with lymphedema, it is best formulated with the guidance of medical professional, an occupational therapist or physical therapist that is certified in lymphedema treatment. Research studies have found that an exercise program built with a gentle and low intensity challenge with a slow, gradual increase in intensity is most effective in mobilizing swelling. It is important to note that any exercise program utilized should not involve any pain or strain. Overstressing the body will actually cause an inflammatory response which could potentially increase swelling. A safe and consistent exercise routine of stretching and strengthening with low resistance and higher repetitions will help to safely build muscle strength while also helping to reduce swelling.
Combined with compression, exercising can be even more effective because the compression will increase pressure forcing those lymphatics even closer to the muscle bellies. Each time the muscle pumps, it does an even better job at pushing that swelling away, like pushing the tube of toothpaste from both sides instead of only one side.
To reiterate, it is best to formulate an exercise program with the assistance of a trained professional who specializes in lymphedema. Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital is happy to have two certified lymphedema therapists: Jenica Bartolotta MOT, OTR/L, CLT and Cody Ellis MOT, OTR/L, CLT. If you have any questions in regards to lymphedema, exercise, or swelling in general, please call Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital at 573-468-1340.