Get Control of Your Lymphedema: Lifestyle Considerations to Help Manage Swelling
Though there is no cure for lymphedema, you can manage the disease and its associated swelling by incorporating a few lifestyle changes. These will help you continue the activities you love and prevent your lymphedema from worsening.
Exercise is important for managing lymphedema. Your lymphatic system relies on your gentle movements and breathing to help keep your swelling under control, so exercise is an essential part of your lifestyle. Consider the following exercise benefits:
- Gentle movements and breathing promote lymph circulation, which will help move fluid out of the swollen area.
- It can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce lymphedema swelling.
- It keeps your joints flexible, maintaining and improving your range of movement.
- Exercise may help improve your strength and activity level.
- Exercise can build muscle, improving cardiovascular and lymphatic circulation.
- Exercise can also help you feel better about yourself and reduce stress and anxiety.
Your lymphedema specialist will recommend some gentle, repetitive exercises, called remedial exercises, as well as deep abdominal breathing exercises in Phase I of your treatment. These exercises are very powerful promoters of lymph flow. Once you move into Phase II of your treatment, you may continue with abdominal and remedial exercises and/or find some other form of activity that you enjoy. Any exercise is a good thing as long as you get the approval from your healthcare provider. Remember to wear your medical compression garment when you exercise to support to your lymphatic system.
There may be some types of exercise that you will need to take more care with, and you may need to be careful if there is a high risk of muscle strain or skin injury. Always ask your lymphedema therapist for advice and talk to your doctor before you start. You also should consult with a professional who can help put you on a safe, slow and progressive program. Popular types of exercise include:
Resistance: weight lifting, body weight, resistance bands, kettle balls
Aerobic: bicycling, walking, swimming, aerobic classes
Stretching: yoga, tai chi, pilates
It is very important to stay consistent and to listen to your body. It is best to start slowly as you start a new exercise program. Swelling may increase if you exercise too quickly, too often or for long periods of time. If you become more breathless or uncomfortable during exercise, or if swelling gets worse, stop and contact your provider for advice. Read wellness advice from members of our online lymphedema community to help inspire you to get and keep moving.
Pay attention to your nutrition.
Many people do not realize that lymphedema is an inflammatory disease. One way to help manage chronic inflammation is through food choices that reduce your body’s inflammatory responses. Benefits of better food choices may include:
- Improving symptoms and overall health;
- Delaying progression of the disease; and reducing your risk of developing symptoms.
Many thought leaders in the field of lymphology believe that a plant-based diet may be a good for those with lymphedema, as the natural foods flood the body with nutrients and minerals that may reduce inflammation. A plant-based diet may include lots of leafy greens, fruits, berries, nuts, beans, potatoes, lentils and colorful vegetables.
It can be overwhelming to know where to start when you decide to change the way you eat, but the good news is that there is a plethora of resources out there to help you transition. Some great and inspiring documentaries include:
- Forks over Knives
- What the Health
- Live and Let Live
- The Game Changers
“Forks over Knives” has a great and simple cookbook you can follow, and Facebook has tons of recipe support groups. Also, the Juzo Steps to Better Health blog has a post from Ann Dimenna, PT, CLT, with helpful nutritional strategies.
Try dry brushing.
One of the most important actions you can do for your health is to support lymphatic drainage. You can do this in just a few minutes each day by practicing dry brushing. Using small, swift stroking movements with a soft, natural fiber brush, will stimulate the lymphatic system. Dry brushing the skin regularly helps promote normal lymph and also helps the body detoxify itself naturally.
Here are some tips to begin dry skin brushing:
- Purchase a high-quality brush. Look for one made from natural fibers, such as boar bristle or agave. The brush fibers should be firm (but not be extremely stiff) and move easily. Choose a brush with a long wooden handle. This will make it easier to get to those hard to reach areas.
- Dry brushing is always done on dry skin with a dry brush. Remove your clothes and stand in the shower or bath tub. The brush is a tool to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Pressure should be fairly firm but should not cause any pain. Dry brushing is exactly what the name implies – brushing, not scrubbing. Avoid brushing areas on your body where the skin is sensitive or broken.
- A dry brushing session usually lasts between five and 10 minutes, but the length of time is up to you. There are no set guidelines, but remember to work toward the heart.
- After you finish dry brushing, take a bath or shower. Gently wash away the dead skin cells the dry brushing has helped exfollate from your skin.
- Towel dry and then apply a low PH-balanced moisturizing lotion.
After dry brushing, the lymphatic fluid will move more easily through the lymphatic system and toxins will be removed. You may find a need to urinate more frequently after your dry brushing session. This is due to the release of stored lymphatic fluid. ALWAYS remember to check with your lymphedema therapist and/or physician for specific dry brushing techniques.