What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which chronic swelling occurs in the body, due to a compromised lymphatic system. More than one in five people undergoing treatment for breast cancer will develop lymphedema, due to surgery or radiation therapy, within one year of treatment. Lymphedema can also result from other surgeries in which the lymphatic structures, which carry fluid out of the tissues, are affected. Lymphedema can cause pain and impaired movement in those affected and can negatively impact quality of life.

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How is lymphedema treated?

Lymphedema may be treated conservatively with complex decongestive therapy, which consists of compression garments, proper skin care, exercise, and lymphatic massage. Lymphatic massage is a safe and gentle massage technique that has been shown to reduce swelling in lymphedema, by moving the accumulated fluid away from swollen areas and directing it back into the lymphatic system. In Ontario, registered massage therapists have knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the lymphatic system and as part of their training, they learn to perform these techniques safely and effectively.

An important component of our general health and wellness, exercise can help to reduce swelling and other symptoms associated with lymphedema. Exercise has even been shown to lower the risk of developing breast cancer related lymphedema. For those with lymphedema, lymph-reducing exercises which involve gravity-resisted movements, can help reduce swelling by increasing lymph circulation. Furthermore, progressive strength training programs have also been shown to be safe and beneficial for reducing swelling in those with breast cancer related lymphedema. Exercise has many benefits in addition to improving lymph circulation, such as improving strength, mobility, and general physical and mental health.

How we can help

A management plan involving lymphatic massage and therapeutic exercise can help to alleviate symptoms associated with lymphedema. At Strive, our massage and physiotherapy team will work collaboratively with you and your healthcare specialists to help you achieve your health-related goals and to help you move and feel better.

Those with lymphedema should consult with their family doctor or a lymphedema specialist before beginning a management plan.