Saturday, April 22, 2006

Exercise, Lymphedema, and the Limb at Risk

Exercise, Lymphedema, and the Limb at Risk
Bonnie B. Lasinski, MA, PT, CLT-LANA
How many clinicians are at a loss for words when they are asked about what kind of exercise is "good" for individuals with lymphedema? How many individuals living with lymphedema or a limb at risk for lymphedema have asked their healthcare professional for advice concerning exercise only to receive conflicting information? It is difficult to "recruit" presenters to provide workshops/discussions on exercise for both patients and professionals alike. Exercise and lymphedema - it is a controversial subject.

Twenty-four years ago, I was asked to do a presentation on exercise after mastectomy for a one day seminar sponsored by the American Cancer Society's Long Island Division, entitled "Living With Cancer". When I contacted the coordinator of the workshop, Diana Rulon, she informed me that she was not "interested in exercise after mastectomy - she was interested in exercise for lymphedema!"You can imagine my shock and fear at that moment. I had no special training in lymphedema management, in fact, no one did. We were just beginning to hear strange tales of a treatment from Europe that seemed ridiculously mild for the severe swellings I had seen in my limited experience. But, I figured no problem. I'll just go to the medical library, research the articles, and develop my talk from there.

Well, that was 1980 and there were no articles, except for a few abstracts of German and French studies. Now, I was really in trouble. Well, long story short, I was inspired by the dedication of Diana Rulon who tried to find help for other women like herself, who had long been ignored by their doctors and told to live with their problem. Thus began my journey in lymphedema management. Trial by fire, you might say! We presented a very basic, common sense talk on lymphedema, trying to define it in simple terms (no small feat when the literature was so poor - the definition at that time was a 2 centimeter difference between forearms - as if that was the only place one could have lymphedema!). Next, Diana presented some practical suggestions for nutrition that she had found helpful to her and several other women she knew. Finally, I wrapped up the session with some very basic information on exercise progression and then opened the floor for questions. The response was overwhelming. The participants were so grateful that their problem was finally acknowledged, even on such a basic level.

Twenty-four years later, although the medical management of lymphedema has come a long way, thanks in great part by the advocacy of Saskia Thiadens and the NLN, there is still much work to do. Basic and advanced research on the effects of exercise as a lymphedema risk reduction modality must be explored. The basic criticism of the precautions about exercise contained in the 18 Steps to Prevention of Lymphedema and other risk reduction guidelines is that they are "anecdotal" at the present time, due to the lack of controlled double-blind studies to prove their efficacy. Some medical professionals have taken the position that the individual with a limb at risk (or with lymphedema) should go ahead and pursue whatever exercise/activity they wish and "see what happens". Unfortunately, lymphedema is a chronic condition, which, presently, has no cure. While it is true that not all individuals who have had lymph node disruption (surgical or radiological) will develop lymphedema, until physicians can better predict who is at greater risk for lymphedema, a prudent approach to exercise is advisable. In the case of individuals with primary lymphedema or established secondary lymphedema, working up to a level of exercise that promotes fitness while avoiding exacerbating the lymphedema is a good goal.

I'm sure that some of you may have been told in the past that you should not exercise if you have lymphedema, or that certain types of exercise are contraindicated if you have lymphedema. This is not the case. I would like to review some basic principles of anatomy and physiology and pathophysiology of lymphedema and how these relate to exercise and lymphedema. Lymphedema occurs when there is an imbalance between lymph transport capacity and lymph load. After any surgical disruption or radiation treatment to a lymph node region, a state of latent lymphedema occurs. That is to say that the lymph transport capacity is reduced but it is still greater or equal to the lymph load. Acute/chronic lymphedema develops when that balance is shifted and lymph load exceeds the impaired lymph transport capacity. In the case of Primary Lymphedema, where there is a malformation/malfunctioning of the lymphatic transport system that results in a reduced lymphatic transport capacity, lymph load often exceeds that transport capacity, and progressive lymphedema develops over time.

Our lymphatic system, in addition to filtering out waste products, helps our bodies maintain fluid balance so that we are neither dehydrated nor edematous. 90% of the water component of our blood that perfuses the capillary network and nourishes our cells returns to the heart via the venous system. The 10% that is left behind in the tissues along with the extracellular protein that filters out of the capillaries, can only return to the heart via the lymphatics. That 10% can amount to up to 2 liters a day. While 2 liters may not seem like much, it adds up day after day, if there is impairment in lymph drainage. In addition, the extracellular proteins can only return to the central circulation via the lymphatic vessels. The diameter of these molecules is too large to fit into the openings in the vein walls - the openings in the lymphatic vessel walls are large enough for these protein molecules to enter easily.

So lymphedema is not only a problem of excess water remaining in the tissues, but of excess protein that remains in the tissues as well. Unfortunately, the body always moves for a state of balance so it actually tends to pour more water into the tissues to "dilute" this protein concentration - thus a vicious cycle develops. This problem is compounded by the fact that the white blood cells called macrophages, which are part of our immune response, do not work properly in the lymphedematous fluid. This is why anyone with lymphedema is at increased risk for infection in his or her affected limb.

What does all this have to do with exercise? A review of the acute and chronic effects of exercise is helpful to understand how the limb at risk or a lymphedematous limb might respond to various types of exercise. The acute responses to exercise include increases in heart rate, stroke volume, cardiac output, blood flow to active muscles, systolic blood pressure, arteriovenous oxygen difference, ventilation, oxygen uptake, and a decrease in blood pH and plasma volume. Chronic adaptations to exercise include biochemical changes in skeletal muscles, decreased resting heart rate, decrease in total body fat, blood lipids, and the density and strength of bone and connective tissue. During exercise, blood is redirected to the muscles. At rest, only 21% of the cardiac output goes to the muscles, compared with as much as 88% during exhaustive exercise. As the body heats up, an increasing amount of blood is directed to the skin, to conduct heat away from the body core.1 Remember that lymph transport has to be equal to or greater than lymph load. When you exercise, your muscles need extra blood to supply the oxygen needed for your muscles to do the work of the exercise. Extra blood flow means that extra water will remain in the extracellular spaces needing transport via the lymphatic system. The question is how much is too much? That is very individual. It is important that any exercise program be gradually progressed to avoid sprain/strain. More importantly, a slow progression allows the individual to monitor their affected limb or limb at risk for any sensation of aching or fullness that could indicate an overwhelming of the lymphatic system.

Exercise can increase the uptake of fluid by the initial lymphatics and enhance the pumping of the collecting lymphatics. In addition, exercise mobilizes the joints and strengthens the muscles of the involved limb/limbs/trunk quadrant, thus decreasing the risk of strain/sprain.2Exercise is best done with compression on the affected limb either from compression bandages or compression garments. The bandages provide a new "tight" skin for the muscles to contract against, assisting in pumping the lymph out of the extremity into the central circulation. When lymphedema exists, the remaining lymph vessels that are functioning are working double time to try to carry the load. These vessels become over dilated (stretched) and eventually, their walls can overstretch and fail, causing a worsening of the swelling. Wearing compression bandages/garments provides support to the skin and to the lymphatic vessels directly under the skin, called the superficial lymphatic network. It is these vessels that help to carry the load when the larger vessels have been cut away from the lymph nodes or have been damaged due to trauma or chronic venous disease, or in the case of primary lymphedema, when there are too few large lymph collectors in a region due to improper vessel/node development during fetal growth.

Of course, certain types of exercise are considered higher risk than others. For example, high speed activities like tennis, bowling and racquetball, place more stress on the upper limb while jogging, stair-climbing machines, downhill skiing, water skiing, football, soccer place more stress on the lower extremities or have higher injury risk than other activities such as swimming, brisk walking, and cycling. That is not to say that someone with lymphedema of the leg should not jog for exercise, or that the person with lymphedema of the arm and hand should not play tennis or golf. It is also important to know whether an individual was skilled at a sport/activity prior to their developing lymphedema. A sport-specific exercise program can be developed for the individual to build strength, flexibility and endurance in the muscle groups most used in that sport/activity. Ultimately, the decision to "play" should be an individual one, but an informed one.

Many men and women with lymhedema or a limb at risk want to work out with weights. A slow progression of light weights can be done safely and can allow an individual to develop good strength and power in any muscle group. The important thing to consider is whether you feel good after the exercise and how your affected limb reacts after you exercise. You must also consider your level of daily activity and modify accordingly - if you have had a particularly difficult day and your affected limb is more swollen, you may choose to do a different activity i.e. swim instead of walk, or you may realize that the best activity for that day is to rest with your limb elevated. The importance of deep abdominal breathing exercise should not be overlooked. Deep breathing enhances the pumping in the thoracic duct (the major lymphatic vessel draining the lower body and the left upper trunk/arm/hand).

A recent series of case reports published in the Journal of Surgical Oncology3 challenges the theory that vigorous upper body exercise is contraindicated for individuals who have had axillary dissection during surgery for breast cancer. The study followed a group of 24 women for 9 months. These women were recruited to participate in a training program to prepare for competition in the World Championship Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dragon Boat racing involves strenuous repetitive upper body exercise. 18-20 women paddle 40-60 foot boats for a distance of 500-650 meters. Circumferential measurements were collected on 20 of the 24 participants (limbs were measured at 4 places) pre training, at the start of the racing, and 7 months after the races. According to the authors, only two women, who had pre-existing mild lymphedema, had increases in their upper arms (5/8 inch) and none of the other participants developed lymphedema. One of the authors of the study, herself a breast cancer survivor participated in the program. The authors conclude that strenuous upper body exercise may not cause lymphedema or worsen a pre-existing lymphedema.

It is important to note that the participants in this study completed a two-month training program of stretching, strengthening, and aerobic exercises prior to engaging in the actual strenuous activity of Dragon Boat racing. Many individuals who undergo breast surgery/axillary dissection/radiation are not enrolled in supervised progressive exercise programs like the participants of this study. Providing structured, individualized exercise programs should be a goal of all centers that perform cancer surgeries. While I do not discourage individuals from participating in sports and exercise, I do caution them that they should consider themselves "athletes" in the "game" of life. As such, each individual should engage in a stretching/strengthening program to prepare them for full participation in whatever activity they choose.


1. Nieman, David C. Exercise Testing and Prescription: A Health Related Approach, 4th ed. Mountain View, California, Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999: P, 190-205.2. Casley-Smith, Judith R, Casley Smith, John R. Modern Treatment for Lymphoedema, 5th ed. Adelaide, Australia, The Lymphology Association of Australia, 1997: p. 188-189.3. Harris, Susan R, Niesen-Vertommen, Sherri. Challenging the Myth of Exercise-Induced Lymphedema Following Breast Cancer: A Series of Case Reports. Journal of Surgical Oncology 2000; 74:94-99.

Lymphedema Therapy

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