Lymphoedema and Exercise
What is lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is the accumulation of lymph fluid which typically causes pain, swelling, loss of sensation and fibrosis. It is usually caused by damage to the lymphatic system, most commonly associated with surgeries in which lymph nodes are removed or damaged. Lymphoedema can occur in both the upper and lower limb, and is typically an adverse side effect of breast and ovarian cancer treatment. Other risk factors for developing lymphoedema include recent injury to the at-risk site and being overweight or obese.
Is it safe to exercise with lymphoedema?
There are still misconceptions out there that exercise may increase the risk of developing lymphoedema or be harmful in those experiencing lymphoedema. The latest evidence indicates this is not typically the case, with regular exercise actually decreasing the risk of developing lymphoedema. In addition, exercise can decrease the severity of symptoms in those with exiting lymphoedema by increasing muscle strength, blood vessel density and venous return (rate of blood flow back to the heart). Regular exercise also stimulates the skeletal muscle pump, which may also improve lymphatic drainage and reduce swelling.
For individuals with lymphoedema, exercises will typically need to be modified, which is why it is recommended to seek specialist advice from a health professional with experience in cancer care like our very own exercise physiologists and physiotherapists at Vibe.
- Baumann et al. Effects of physical exercise on breast cancer-related secondary lymphoedema: a systematic review. Breast Cancer Res Treat 2018. 170:1-13.
- Bloomquist et al. Heavy load lifting acute response in breast cancer survivors at risk for lymphoedema. Med Sci Sport & Ex 2018. 2:187-195.
- Neel et al. Lymphoedema in ovarian cancer survivors: assessing diagnostic methods and the effects of physical activity. Cancer 2018. 9:1929-1937.