Why Is Exercise Important For Lymphoedema Management?

by Michelle White, Physiotherapist, Lime Physical Therapy | Sep 29, 2015

During exercise, the muscle contraction that occurs when the muscles are tensed puts increased pressure on the lymph vessels. This “muscle pump” squeezes the vessels to enhance the lymphatic pumping mechanism, which in turn helps to move lymph fluid into and along the lymph vessels, back towards the chest and away from the affected area. There are one-way valves in the deeper lymphatic vessels which help stop backflow and help to direct the lymph fluid centrally away from the limbs towards the trunk. Therefore specific exercises help to drain fluid out of a swollen limb. Exercises are also important to maintain mobility of the joints and to stretch and strengthen muscles.

When Exercising, Remember the Following:

  • Perform exercises slowly and smoothly, in a gentle manner, they should not be painful
  • Wear bandages/compression sleeve whilst exercising if available – this will further enhance the pumping action of the lymphatic vessels.
  • Exercises start with the trunk to help with lymph drainage centrally, followed by exercises of the affected limb: firstly using the proximal muscles (i.e. the muscles closest to the centre of the body e.g. shoulder/upper arm; hip/thigh) then the distal muscles of the limb last (i.e. muscles furthest from the centre of the body e.g. forearm and fingers; calf, ankle and toes). Do exercises in the order provided, as by draining the trunk and central areas back to the general circulation first, this gives the fluid from the limbs somewhere to drain. It is like emptying a bucket so more fluid can be put into it.
  • Include deep breathing – this causes a pressure change which acts like a vacuum inside the ribcage, helping to drain lymphatic vessels towards the trunk
  • Get into a routine, a time of day that fits in with your lifestyle.
  • A person’s exercise program should be tailored to the individual and will depend on their age, occupation, lifestyle, level of fitness and current health.
  • Always get your doctor or lymphoedema therapist’s approval and guidance for any exercise program. If any exercise seems to cause you any problems or seems to result in further swelling, STOP, seek professional advice.
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