Lymphedema is a chronic disease that results in a buildup of lymphatic fluid. It often occurs when axillary lymph nodes are removed during breast cancer surgery or when there is damage to the lymph nodes. Lymphedema may not occur immediately after surgery. According to the American Cancer Society
, it can begin many months or even years later. There are many causes, but the most common cause is treatment for cancer. There is no cure for lymphedema but it can be effectively treated.
Lymph nodes carry lymphatic fluid through the body. This fluid can build in areas where lymph nodes or vessels are not present to help distribute the fluid. This swelling causes pain and a feeling of heaviness often restricting limb movement. It is very uncomfortable. I developed Lymphedema several months after completing radiation treatments. It was not something I expected and I was certainly unprepared for it. Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to find ways to alleviate the effects of lymphedema on my body. There have been many treatments. Some of them worked and some did not, but none of the remedies I’ve tried have been successful at completely eliminating the lymphedema. This is a lifelong condition.
In a study
performed at Lund University in Sweden, it was discovered when breast cancer patients performed an exercise program including light free weights, they experienced some relief of their symptoms. Routine lifting of weights weighing one pound or less helped build arm strength, muscle tone and bone density. Patients noted their symptoms were much milder than before starting regular exercise. The women in the study found their arms felt better for longer periods of time and attributed it to the weight lifting.
In another study
, published in the New England Journal of Medicine,
141 breast cancer patients with lymphedema took part in an exercise program. Half of the patients were careful not to overuse their arms and the other half began a program incorporating the use of light weights. Each woman in the study had previously lost one breast, was close to a normal body weight, and had been out of breast cancer treatment for at least a year. Certified lymphedema therapists kept a close eye on the women's arms monitoring size and appearance. The women participated in 90-minute classes bi-weekly classes. During the classes, the women began with a warmup routine followed by abdominal and back exercises. Next, the women began weight-lifting exercises. Each muscle group was targeted during weight training. Weights were gradually increased. During training, there was no maximum limit set for free weights the women could lift. Each woman was monitored for lymphedema flare ups. It was noted the group lifting weights experienced fewer flare-ups than the women who protected their arms. Researchers deduced that arm muscle contractions may help move lymph fluid back to veins in the armpit and neck areas thereby forcing the body to recirculate the fluid. This, in turn, alleviated swelling and discomfort.
After reading these articles, I wondered if weight lifting would work for me. I discussed this with my doctor and was given the go ahead to experiment. I tried using light weights and performed a pumping type exercise first thing in the morning and several times throughout the day. I only exercised about ten minutes each time. The pumping actions with the weights helped move lymphatic fluid along the proper channels and caused it to flow through my body so it could be reabsorbed and eliminated.
On the days I performed the exercises, I found my arms were less swollen and discomfort was minimized. On days I did not exercise, my arms were more swollen and painful. After using the weights for several months now, I’ve determined light weight lifting is beneficial for me.
Finding relief for lymphedema is challenging. Millions of Americans go undiagnosed and untreated for lymphedema. Many insurance companies don’t cover medically prescribed treatments or supplies that would decrease the incidence of complications. Currently, a federal bill called the Lymphedema Treatment Act has been presented to congress and is being considered as future legislation. This bill would help those suffering from lymphedema obtain treatment, compression garments, and devices to alleviate the unwanted side effects from the disease. It would also help reduce healthcare costs associated with lymphedema for many suffering today.
Disclaimer: Please discuss any form of exercise or unprescribed therapy with your physician before attempting. Each case is different and some are more severe than others.
Schmitz KH et al. Weight lifting in women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema. N Engl J Med. 2009 Aug 13;361(7):664-73.
American Cancer Society. (2015). Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know. Retrieved October 21st 2015.