Strength Training Prevents Lymphedema

It's time to update your thinking about preventing lymphedema, a possible side effect of breast cancer treatments that causes a painful swelling of the arm.  A current study shows that strength training exercises can actually reduce the risk of developing this unwelcome complication, improve symptoms if they develop, and prepare women to return to their normal day-to-day activities. Traditionally, women have been advised against lifting weights and performing repetitive arm movements like scrubbing, pushing and pulling.  While some women altered their lifestyles out of fear of triggering an episode, many others were not able to abide by the old restrictions because of their normal physical demands such as picking up a child, carrying a laptop, or doing housework.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2009, found that weight lifters had fewer problems because they had better muscle tone and endurance.  The program of progressive weightlifting exercises gradually increased the physical capacity of the affected arm in a controlled setting, making it less likely that daily activities that require upper body strength would overstress the impaired lymphatic system.

In the study, the women worked out twice a week for one year.  In addition to the upper body exercises, they also did a cardiovascular warm up, stretching, and abdominal, back and lower body exercises.  Stretches should focus on the chest and shoulders, since tightness in the pectoral area and decreased shoulder mobility can both interfere with normal lymph drainage.  It is important to restore full range of motion in these areas before starting to strengthen them.

Not surprisingly, at the end of a year the women in the exercise group showed an increase in strength over the control group.  More surprisingly, in that time only nine exercisers had a flare up as opposed to nineteen non-exercisers.  Furthermore, the weight-lifters experienced fewer and less severe symptoms.   Some of the additional stated benefits were improvements in mobility, balance and coordination.

 Safety Guidelines for Strength Training: 

1)         Always check with your doctor before becoming much more physically active than you are now.

2)         If you have lymphedema, talk with your doctor to make sure that your lymphedema is stable (i.e. you haven’t had new problems in the last three months).

3)         Wear a custom-fitted compression sleeve while exercising.

4)         Consult with a certified exercise professional regarding proper weight lifting techniques.

5)         Start slowly and progress gradually. Stop if you have pain, increased swelling or discomfort.

6)         In the event of a flare up, have an evaluation by a lymphedema specialist and wait untilthe flare subsides before resuming lifting. 

Of course, this information should not take the place of guidance from your own physician or other medical professional.