How Lifting Weights May Help Lymphedema

Pumping Some Iron Moves Excess Lymph Fluid

woman lifting weights
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The burden of undergoing breast cancer surgery and/or radiation is enough — yet, some women also suffer from lymphedema, an uncomfortable consequence of surgery or radiation.

The good news is that women can take an active role in reducing lymphedema symptoms through proper exercise and lifting weights.

Let's examine what lymphedema is, and the science behind how weight lifting may improve the discomfort that stems from this condition.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is caused by the removal of axillary lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery, or by damage to those nodes during radiation treatments. Excess lymph fluid can build up in areas where lymph nodes and lymph vessels are no longer present to help carry the fluid to other parts of the body.

Lymphedema symptoms can include swelling and pain in your arm, chest, and breast area. It may also include a change in skin color and texture, a feeling of heaviness, and difficulty using your fingers for daily tasks. The symptoms vary from person to person.

Usually, lymphedema develops gradually soon after surgery or radiation. But in some people, it may begin even months or years later, according to the American Cancer Society.

Can Weight Lifting Help Lymphedema?

Current research suggests that pumping a little iron may help reduce or prevent lymphedema.

For instance, a 2009 study done at Lund University in Sweden in Physiotherapy Theory and Practice found that when breast cancer patients did a regular program of light free weights, water exercise, and pole walking, they experienced relief from their symptoms.

Routine lifting of one-pound weights helped with muscle tone, arm strength, and bone density.

In addition, in one 2005 study in Lymphology, a small group of women with lymphedema learned to combine deep breathing with arm exercise for 10 minutes every morning and evening. They did this program for one month and found that their arm swelling went down.

In addition, their lymphedema symptoms were much milder than before starting regular exercise. These women said that their arms felt better for 24 hours, one week, and even one month after the end of the study.

Finally, a 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined 141 breast cancer patients with lymphedema who had taken part in an exercise program. While half of the patients were careful not to overuse their arms, the other half engaged in progressive weight lifting.

All of the women in the study had lost one breast, had relatively healthy body weight, and had been out of breast cancer treatment for at least one year.

Certified lymphedema therapists monitored the women's arms, and fitness professionals working at the YMCA taught 90-minute classes that met twice a week.

During classes, the women followed a routine of warm-ups, abdominal and back exercises, and weight-lifting exercises. They did weight lifting with all the major muscle groups, very slowly increasing the weights that were used.

No upper limit was set for the weight to be lifted, and instructors worked to monitor safety and comfort of the participants, as well as keep an eye out for lymphedema flare-ups.

Researchers were surprised to find that the group that lifted weights had significantly fewer lymphedema symptoms than the women who protected their arms. The women who lifted weights also had more strength — go figure.

How Does Weight Lifting Help Lymphedema?

Researchers think that arm muscle contractions may help move lymph fluid back to veins in your armpit and neck, so it can rejoin your blood circulation. When the lymph fluid goes back into circulation, your arm lymphedema should improve.

In addition, gentle weight lifting can raise your self-esteem, give you a feeling of control, improve muscle tone and bone density. So strike a blow against arm lymphedema -- pick up some weights and get your arms back in good shape.

What Should I Do?

Here are  some simple gentle exercises to help your lymphedema symptoms improve. Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your doctor before you start. You do need time after surgery or radiation to heal, so please follow the advice of your doctor.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (2015).  Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know. Retrieved October 21st 2015. 

Jönsson C & Johansson K. Pole walking for patients with breast cancer-related arm lymphedema. Physiother Theory Pract. 2009 Apr;25(3):165-73. 

Moseley AL, Piller NB, & Carati CJ. The effect of gentle arm exercise and deep breathing on secondary arm lymphedema.Lymphology. 2005 Sep;38(3):136-45.

Schmitz KH et al. Weight lifting in women with breast-cancer-related lymphedema. N Engl J Med. 2009 Aug 13;361(7):664-73.

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