by Ben Kutz

Have you ever felt your watch get too tight around your wrist or your wedding ring seems to be fitting too snugly? Or maybe, you’ve felt your socks and shoes feel abnormally tight after sitting for a while?  These are some things reported to our Exercise Oncology Instructors from people dealing with lymphedema…abnormal swelling as a result from built up lymph fluid in a particular area of the body. If you think that description might fit something you as the reader are experiencing, you may want to schedule an appointment with your physician to get a better understanding before jumping to conclusions. 

But first let’s ask this question: why should you monitor it?

Lymphedema can occur after some surgical operations, repeated infections, various cancer diagnoses and treatments, or even from congestive heart failure so it’s important to monitor for signs of it. In this condition, circulatory fluid known as “lymph fluid” gets congested in the limbs. Lymphatic circulation is one of the ways your body works to fight off infections and clear out waste products from your body’s cells. 

This condition can come with side effects that change someone’s physical wellbeing such as: 

  • Pain in the affected limb
  • Feeling off-balance
  • Decreased range over motion and strength
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Recurring infections
  • Sleep disturbances

It can also come with some emotional side effects that affect someone’s wellbeing such as:

  • Less confidence in one’s body image
  • Uncertainty about performing certain physical tasks
  • Feeling overburdened by appointments to manage lymphedema
  • Financial costs of devices and treatment appointments
  • Maintaining the routine of self-care recommended by professionals

Fortunately, there are ways that lymphedema can be managed and maintained! 

One way this is done is through properly programmed exercise prescriptions that are optimized for your individual, unique set of circumstances. You might say to yourself, “if lymphedema is a circulation issue, is it safe for me to exercise and exert myself?” That’s a perfectly valid question to ask, but research has shown that exercise is safe and can even be beneficial for combating the symptoms of lymphedema by using muscle contraction to help move that fluid, similar to squeezing out the last bit of toothpaste in the tube! Exercise can also help to achieve weight loss which can decrease an individual’s lymphedema related side effects. Make sure before starting an exercise program, you are cleared by your physician to do so. 

Some tips for exercising with/around lymphedema are:

  • Wear protective, close-toed shoes to protect your feet if walking outside
  • Perform resistance exercise in a moderate intensity, not to the point of muscular exhaustion
  • If possible, try to do exercises that are against the pull of gravity 
  • Wear your compression sleeve/garment if you have one
  • Alternate your exercise order back and forth from upper body and lower body resistance exercises

If you find yourself doing certain tasks for long periods of time that are really repetitive, like rolling bread dough when baking for holidays or folding a lot of laundry, try taking a break every few minutes to stretch your affected limb. This helps minimize an increased amount of swelling that can set in from too much repetition. Another tip, try to limit abrasive surfaces or sharp edges coming in contact with the affected limb since those limbs can be prone to skin infections. 

Another practice that can be very beneficial for managing lymphedema is a massage practice called Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD). This technique is done by licensed massage therapists who are trained in MLD. This isn’t the type of massage done at a spa. It is actually a soft, light stretching of the skin that helps the lymphatic fluid flow in the affected limb to reduce the swelling in it. 

Although it may be daunting to face, with consistency and diligence, you can combat the effects that lymphedema can exert on your day to day life… and get in better shape along the way as well!