How can I take charge and manage lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a lifelong condition and managing it takes a lifelong commitment from you. There’s a lot to learn at first, but when you take charge your self-care becomes second nature.

Your self-care team can include many people besides you: family members or close friends, your certified lymphedema therapist, a family doctor or nurse, a dietitian or nutritionist, and a medical exercise or fitness specialist. Your provincial lymphedema association can connect you with resources in your area.

Self-care education for you and people involved in your care includes:

  • Good skin care to prevent infection
  • Special exercises to help promote lymph flow
  • Nutrition advice for a healthy body weight
  • Self-measurement, self-massage for lymphatic drainage and compression bandaging techniques for care at home

Some other ideas to help you take charge:

  • Following the tips to help lower the risk of lymphedema
  • Wearing a compression garment, as needed
  • Compression bandaging at home, as needed
  • Recording your measurements and symptoms over time in a journal can help you keep track
  • Taking care of other health conditions (like high blood pressure or a thyroid condition)
  • Knowing when to ask for help

Taking Charge: Healthy Body Weight

A healthy body weight is good for your overall health. And it helps you manage lymphedema better. Being very overweight or obese can make it harder to manage lymphedema well. A heavy abdomen can reduce circulation and lymph flow in the legs, leading to swelling.

To get to, or maintain, a healthy body weight, aim to be active and enjoy a balanced diet. Eat lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Try to eat fewer processed foods, less red meat, and look for prepared foods with lower sodium levels. Be sure to drink plenty of water. Check out Canada’s Food Guide for advice and tips. If you think you are overweight, speak to a health professional about healthy weight loss ideas.

Taking Charge: Being Active

Being active offers so much to our health and wellness and should not be avoided because of lymphedema or cancer treatment. Research has shown that regular exercise helps people recover more quickly between cancer treatments; it can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and is beneficial for lymphedema. Depending on your health and fitness level, different types of exercise may be appropriate at different times.

Regular exercise is a key part of your lymphedema self-care. By moving your muscles and breathing more deeply, you stimulate your lymphatic system and help your lymph flow.

The benefits of regular exercise include:

      • Improved blood and lymphatic circulation
      • Improved muscle strength, so you feel stronger
      • Better joint mobility
      • Increased fitness and less injury
      • Helping to get to or maintain a healthy body weight
      • Overall mental and physical wellness

During the intensive phase of treatment to reduce swelling, your certified lymphedema therapist will show you special exercises. Your therapist will also encourage you to be active during the maintenance phase.

What it means to be active is varied and can include: organized sporting activities, working out at a gym or in your home, a brisk walk with friends or to do your errands, running around with your children or grand-children, or work about your house or garden.

Exercise safely, ideally with the advice of your self-care team: your family doctor or nurse, lymphedema therapist and fitness specialist. Be aware that many fitness specialists or personal trainers are unfamiliar with lymphedema. You’ll need to educate them about the condition, what helps you and what you need to avoid. You can also refer them to your lymphedema therapist for information about the benefits and risks of exercise to help manage lymphedema.

Taking Charge: Guidelines for Exercise

      • Before starting any new activity, let your trainers or instructors know that you have lymphedema.
      • Avoid sudden activities that your body is not used to, such as joining a gym and overdoing it on the first day or moving a lot of furniture in your home over a short time
      • Measure your affected area before starting a new activity, and monitor it over time
      • Wear a well-fitting compression garment while you exercise
      • Start slowly (for a short time with low repetitions and low weights)
      • Progress at your own pace, build your strength and stamina slowly, and don’t overdo it
      • Get advice on equipment use, body posture and positioning to prevent injury
      • Make time for deep breathing and water breaks to stay hydrated
      • Pay attention to any signs of pain or discomfort during/after exercise and modify as needed
      • Monitor for changes in swelling and keep a record of regular measurements

Types of activity

The key is finding activities that fit into your life and that you enjoy. Your lymphedema therapist can advise you about safe exercise and different ways to be active, including the benefits of:

      • Pool exercises like aqua fit, aqua lymphatic therapy or just walking in water (water pressure is like a natural compression garment, especially when you stand and move against it)
      • Walking, gentle cycling, dancing and light aerobics
      • Gentle stretching and rest after any type of cardiovascular exercise or strength training
      • Yoga and Pilates; however, if you have upper body lymphedema, ask your instructor for alternatives to poses that require static weight-bearing of the arms (e.g. downward dog)
      • Changing activities to avoid overusing one area, e.g. if you have arm lymphedema, vacuum one room at a time rather than the whole house in one go
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