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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Lymphedema is a Chronic Condition & Why I Love Swimming

By Laura Carfang



What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a chronic condition characterized by the accumulation of lymph fluid in the tissues, leading to swelling, discomfort, and sometimes pain. It typically occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged or impaired, hindering the proper drainage of lymph fluid from the affected area.


Understanding Lymph Fluid:

Lymph fluid is a vital component of the lymphatic system, which plays a crucial role in the body's immune function. This fluid contains white blood cells called lymphocytes, which help fight infection and remove waste products from tissues. Lymph fluid circulates through a network of lymphatic vessels, filtering through lymph nodes, before returning to the bloodstream.


Breast Cancer and Lymphedema:

For individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment, such as surgery or radiation therapy, damage to the lymphatic system may occur. Lymph nodes may be removed or damaged during surgery, disrupting the natural flow of lymph fluid. Additionally, radiation therapy can cause scarring and inflammation in the lymphatic vessels, further impeding lymphatic drainage.


Preventing Lymphedema:

Those diagnosed with breast cancer can take proactive steps to reduce their risk of developing lymphedema. 

Some preventive measures include:

  • Gentle Exercise: Engaging in low-impact exercises, such as walking or swimming, can promote lymphatic circulation without putting excessive strain on the affected area.

  • Graduated Compression Garments: Wearing compression sleeves or garments can help support the lymphatic system and prevent fluid buildup.

  • Skin Care: Practicing good skin hygiene and avoiding cuts, burns, or other injuries can reduce the risk of infection, which may exacerbate lymphedema.

  • Avoiding Tight Clothing: Tight clothing or accessories, such as bras with underwire or tight jewelry, can restrict lymphatic flow and should be avoided.

Managing Lymphedema:

Despite preventive measures, some people may still develop lymphedema. If you experience symptoms such as swelling, heaviness, or tightness in the affected limb, it's essential to seek medical attention promptly. Treatment options for lymphedema may include:


Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD):

MLD is a specialized massage technique performed by trained therapists. It involves gentle, rhythmic movements that stimulate the lymphatic vessels, encouraging the drainage of excess fluid from the affected area. MLD can help alleviate swelling, improve circulation, and enhance the functioning of the lymphatic system.


Compression Therapy:

Compression therapy is a cornerstone of lymphedema management. It involves applying pressure to the affected limb through the use of compression garments, bandages, or wraps. Compression helps reduce swelling, prevents fluid buildup, and provides support to the tissues.. Compression garments come in various styles, sizes, and compression levels, ranging from light compression to high compression. It's essential to work with a qualified therapist or certified fitter to ensure that you get the right fit and compression level for your needs.


Exercise Therapy:

Exercise plays a crucial role in managing lymphedema by promoting lymphatic circulation and muscle movement. However, it's essential to engage in exercises that are safe and appropriate for your condition. A qualified physical therapist can develop a personalized exercise program that includes activities such as gentle stretching, strength training, and aerobic exercises.


Skin Care:

Proper skin care is essential for individuals with lymphedema to prevent infections and complications. This includes keeping the skin clean and moisturized, avoiding cuts and injuries, protecting the skin from sun exposure, and practicing good hygiene habits.


Finding the Right Qualified Therapist:

When seeking treatment for lymphedema, it's crucial to find a qualified therapist who specializes in lymphatic disorders. Here are some tips for finding the right therapist:

  • Ask for Referrals: Seek recommendations from your healthcare provider, oncologist, or support groups for breast cancer survivors. They may be able to recommend experienced therapists in your area.

  • Check Credentials: Look for therapists who have received specialized training and certification in lymphedema management. The National Lymphedema Network (NLN) and the Lymphology Association of North America (LANA) offer certification programs for lymphedema therapists.

  • Research Experience: Inquire about the therapist's experience in treating lymphedema, particularly in breast cancer survivors. A therapist with extensive experience in this area will be better equipped to understand your unique needs and provide effective treatment.

  • Schedule a Consultation: Before committing to treatment, schedule a consultation with the therapist to discuss your condition, treatment goals, and any concerns you may have. This will allow you to assess their expertise and determine if they are the right fit for you.



Is Swimming Good for Managing Lymphedema?


On a personal note, I have noticed that swimming laps has helped me to manage my lymphedema. Swimming can be beneficial for individuals with lymphedema, but it's essential to approach these activities with caution and to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise regimen. 


Swimming is particularly beneficial for me  for  several reasons: 



1. Low-Impact Exercise:

Swimming is a low-impact exercise, meaning it puts minimal stress on the joints and muscles compared to high-impact activities like running or weightlifting. For individuals with lymphedema, especially in the limbs, avoiding activities that involve heavy impact or repetitive motion is crucial to prevent exacerbating swelling and discomfort. Swimming allows for a full-body workout without subjecting the limbs to excessive strain.


2. Hydrostatic Pressure:

The water's hydrostatic pressure during swimming provides natural compression to the body. This pressure helps improve blood circulation and lymphatic flow, assisting in the movement of excess fluid out of the affected limb. Hydrostatic pressure also aids in reducing swelling and promoting tissue healing. It effectively supports the body, making movements easier and less strenuous, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals with compromised lymphatic function.


3. Lymphatic Circulation:

The rhythmic movements involved in swimming, such as kicking and stroking, promote lymphatic circulation. As lymph fluid relies on muscle movement and external pressure to flow through the lymphatic vessels, the repetitive motions of swimming help facilitate this process. By encouraging lymphatic circulation, swimming aids in reducing fluid buildup, alleviating swelling, and improving the overall functioning of the lymphatic system.


Precautions:

While swimming offers numerous benefits for individuals with lymphedema, it's essential to exercise caution and follow safety guidelines:

  • Gradually increase the duration and intensity of swimming sessions to avoid overexertion.

  • Protect the affected limb from injury or strain by using flotation devices or wearing compression garments if necessary.

  • Monitor for any signs of discomfort or worsening symptoms during or after swimming, and adjust your routine accordingly.

  • Consult with a healthcare provider or lymphedema specialist before starting a swimming program, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions or concerns.




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