Benefits of Yoga for Individuals with Lymphedema

You may be asking yourself, “What is lymphedema?”

Well, you’re not alone. I get asked that question literally all the time. Short answer: Lymphedema is a form of swelling in one or more body parts. Now hang on tight for the long answer…

Let’s start with edema. I’m sure 99.9% of people reading this have injured themselves at some point in their lives. After any injury, it’s normal to have some sort of swelling (i.e. edema) as this cues the body to send oxygen, nutrients, all the good stuff to help you heal. We’ve all heard the way to cure this swelling: rest, ice, compression, and elevate.

Lymphedema is (very) different. Lymphedema is a build-up of protein rich fluid in our lymphatic system that our lymphatic system is not able to handle. Unfortunately, when we seriously injure our bodies, have surgery that causes damage to our lymphatic system, or are born with a suboptimal lymphatic system we increase our chances of developing lymphedema. The most common diagnosis I see this with is individuals (both women and men) following a breast cancer surgery, which often involves removal of lymph nodes. Although that is the most frequent cause of lymphedema I typically treat, it is important to note that lymphedema occur in any body part from the causes I stated earlier. 

If you have lymphedema or if you’re going to be undergoing surgery for breast cancer in the near future, I highly encourage you to seek out a certified lymphedema therapist. They have several techniques that can help you that include manual techniques to assist with drainage, bandaging/compression, assistance with skin care, and administration of an exercise routine to assist you. Wait a second. What was that last one? Exercise. This is the aspect that I have found the majority of my client’s “forgetting”. Why? Because exercise with a heavy limb is awkward. Because life happens. Because the manual techniques feel better. The list goes on and on. But truth is, the exercise component is so important to assist with the natural pump/drainage our lymphatic system normally has. But not just any form of exercise, because exercising intensely can actually put too much stress on our lymphatic system as well. 

Why am I talking about this? Because I wanted to. But also because yoga is a wonderful form of exercise to incorporate into your routine to assist with lymphedema that’s gentle enough to avoid additional stress on the system. 

Researchers from India and the United Kingdom have developed a protocol specifically for providing yoga services to individuals with lymphedema following breast cancer2. Use of this protocol resulted in decreased volume, decreased pain, and increased range of motion in participant’s arms. Think about the significant influence these areas would have on an individual’s ability to use their limbs throughout their day. Think about how this would help with quality of life. Think about how this would help with emotional wellbeing. All because of yoga. 

Yoga has also been shown to help with lymphedema in legs as well1. Aggithaya, Narahari, & Ryan (2015) studied the effects of yoga, compression, and manual techniques on lymphedema presents in participant’s legs. Results of their study showed decreased volume in participant’s legs, improved posture, and improved quality of life. It is important to note that individuals who have lymphedema in their legs long-term may develop deformities that influence their gait. Although yoga does not “cure” these deformities, it does assist with mobility in general. 

If you or your loved one have been diagnosed with lymphedema, or if you are at risk for developing lymphedema, I highly encourage you to explore yoga as an option for exercise. If you need help, I’m your girl ♥ 

References:

1. Aggithaya, M.G., Narahari, S.R., & Ryan, T.J. (2015). Yoga for correction of lymphedema’s impairment of gait as an adjunct to lymphatic drainage: A pilot observational study. International Journal of Yoga, 8(1), 54-61. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.14606

2. Narahari, S.R., Aggithaya, M., Thernoe, L., Bose, K., & Ryan, T. (2016). Yoga protocol for treatment of breast cancer-related lymphedema. International Journal of Yoga, 9(2), 145-155. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.183713

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