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Exercises for Lymphedema

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 12, 2021

Lymphedema occurs whenever something blocks your lymph fluid from draining. It most commonly occurs in the arms or legs but can happen in the chest wall, abdomen, neck, or genitals as well. Lymphedema is a common side effect of surgery.  

Although it used to be common to restrict activity for people who were at risk for developing lymphedema, research has shown that it isn't necessary to avoid exercise. The Physical Activity and Lymphedema Trial found that women who were at risk for developing lymphedema after breast cancer were less likely to develop it if they did resistance training. The same trial found that women who had stable lymphedema were less likely to have a flare-up if they did strengthening exercises. 

You should talk to your doctor before you do any exercise if you have lymphedema. If they approve it, here are three exercises you can do to either decrease your risk of developing lymphedema or help drain lymphatic fluid if you already have it. 

1. Pretend Swimming

This exercise can help manage or reduce the risk of developing lymphedema in your arms. You can modify this by holding your arms lower if it's too difficult, but you shouldn't feel any pain. Do some deep abdominal breathing before and after each one. 

  • Sit in a chair with your arms together at chest height, straighten them, and move them forward then apart as though you're doing the breaststroke.
  • Bring your arms back around to the starting position. 
  • Repeat 5 to 10 times. 
  • Start the next movement with your hands on your knees. Bring one arm up and around as though you're doing the backstroke.
  • Alternate with the other arm.
  • Repeat 5 to 10 times on each side. 
  • For more of a challenge, you can slow down or add light weights. 

2. Trunk Side Bends

This exercise can help with arm or chest lymphedema. Begin the exercise with the side that is most swollen.  

  • Sit in a chair. 
  • Straighten your arm above your head. 
  • Lean towards the opposite side of your raised arm and hold for 3 to 5 breaths. 
  • You should feel a stretch on the side where your arm is raised. 
  • Straighten back up. 
  • Repeat 8 to 10 times on each side. 
  • When this becomes easy, you can increase the stretch by bending deeper.

3. Neck Rotations

This simple exercise will help with managing lymphedema around the collarbone area.  

  • From a sitting position, turn your head to look over one shoulder and then the other. 
  • Repeat slowly 8 to 10 times on each side.
  • Hold for 1 to 2 seconds on each end. 
  • You should feel a slight stretching sensation.
  • When you can easily turn your head from side to side, you can progress to complete head circles for a larger range of motion. 
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Breastcancer.org: "Lymphedema and Exercise."

Canadian Breast Cancer Network: "Lymphedema Management: Short and Simple Exercises for You."

Mayo Clinic: "Lymphedema."

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