The Lymphatic System, Exercise, and The Cancer Connection

The Lymphatic System, Exercise, and The Cancer Connection

The lymphatic system is tied to the optimal functioning of almost every aspect of the human body. It plays a role in injury and muscle soreness. It has a function for tissue regeneration, mental concentration, fluid regulation and warrants significant attention in the cancer population. even if they have no direct interest in lymphatics.

Understanding the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a complex pathway made up primarily of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. Lymph is a colorless fluid, essentially the waste disposal system of our tissues; and the lymph nodes are the body’s battlefields where most infections are fought.

The lymphatic system works to maintain healthy immunity, to drain stagnant fluids, regenerate tissues and detoxify the body by filtering out foreign substances. Any significant impairment in the lymphatic pathways can affect one’s ability to concentrate. Individuals suffering from this seem disorientated and tired and experience a feeling of general malaise without knowing why.

Understanding the lymph system can be of importance to people who may regularly experience muscle soreness or sustain the occasional injury. When tendons or ligaments have been damaged, fluid collects in small spaces surrounding the soft tissue; such pooling is referred to as swelling or edema.

While this is part of the natural healing process, as the body works to bring nutrient-rich fluid to the injured tissue for repair, recovery time can be decreased dramatically. The quicker the old, stagnant fluid moves out and tissues can receive fresh nourishment for regeneration, the sooner healing can occur.

Exercise and Fluid Regulation

The primary role of the lymphatic system during exercise is to assist in the regulation of tissue volume and pressure by carrying excess fluid and plasma back to the cardiovascular system. The heart, arteries, and veins could not operate without the lymphatic system, since the only means of returning fluids and plasma proteins back to the blood (approximately 2-3 liters every 24 hours) are via the lymphatic vessels.

During steady-state exercise, the flow of lymphatic fluid is two or three times higher than in a resting state. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has made recommendations about exercise and lymphedema after breast cancer.

While there is no indication to date that exercise causes or worsens lymphedema in the otherwise healthy population, lymphatic system functioning can be impaired in a third to half of all breast cancer survivors.

Cancer and Its After-effects

Lymphedema is caused by the removal of axillary lymph nodes during breast cancer surgery, or by damage to those nodes or other lymphatic vessels during radiation treatment. Excess fluid collects in areas where lymph vessels/nodes are no longer present to help shuttle it to other body parts. Although lymphedema symptoms vary among individuals, they typically include swelling and pain in the arm, chest, and breast area. It may also induce a feeling of heaviness and difficulty with fine motor skills required in daily life.

A 2009 study done at Lund University in Sweden in Physiotherapy Theory and Practice found that when women with breast cancer engaged in a regular program of light free weights as well as walking and water aerobics, they experienced relief from their symptoms.

Routine lifting of one-pound weights helped with muscle tone, arm strength, and bone density. Data from a 2005 study was published in the journal Lymphology. A small group of women with lymphedema learned to combine the practice of deep breathing with arm exercises, performed for 10 minutes every morning and evening.

At the end of one month, participants reported a decrease in arm swelling. In addition, their lymphedema symptoms were much milder than before engaging in regular exercise. Some of the women said that their arms felt better for a full month after the study concluded.

In 2009, a research project was undertaken with the examination of 141 people with breast cancer and subsequent lymphedema. Each of these participants had taken part in an exercise program. Half of the subjects received instructions about not overusing their arms; the other half engaged in progressive weight lifting.

All of the women in the study had lost one breast, had relatively healthy body weight, and had been finished with all therapy for at least one year. Certified lymphedema therapists monitored the women’s arms, and fitness professionals taught 90-minute classes twice a week. Results were later published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers were surprised to find that the group assigned to weight lifting had significantly fewer lymphedema symptoms than the women who protected their arms.

Those who lifted weights, not surprisingly, also cultivated more strength. Weight lifting can raise a client’s self-esteem, a vital step in the cancer recovery process, while also providing a sense of mastery over one’s body.

Initiating a Client’s Recovery Journey

If you have not exercised in quite some time, either out of habit or the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy, I cannot emphasize the importance of engaging in some aspect of exercise every day. Remember, movement is life so it’s important to engage in various types of physical activity which could includes weight training, walking, stretching, swimming, heart healthy cardio classes, cycling etc.,

Additionally, deep breathing, such as the 3-dimensional breathing taught at EFW helps by changing the pressure in the abdomen and chest. This encourages lymph to flow back into the blood system.  Positioning the arms at a comfortable level, either using a cushion or pillow, is helpful.  However, do not allow the arms to go above shoulder height.

Exercise Suggestions For Lymphedema

Instead of viewing the limitations you may think you have, lets focus on the exercises you are capable of performing and the multitude of ways that your overall state of wellness can improve.

Neck exercises

Tilting – tilt head towards one shoulder, hold for 3 seconds, return to the center and repeat on the other side.

Reminder: Keep shoulders still throughout exercise.

Turning – turn head to look over one shoulder and hold for 3 seconds; return to facing forward and repeat the movement over the other shoulder.

Reminder: Turn the head only, not the body.

Chin to chest – bend neck down as far as comfort tolerates, chin to chest; hold for 5-10 seconds and then slowly bring head back up to neutral alignment.

Shoulder exercises

Shrug by first relaxing the shoulders, then bringing them up toward the earlobes before allowing them to drop back down.

Shoulder rolls – alternately rotate shoulders forward and backward.

Arm exercises

​Seated in a chair, tap hands to knees, then tap fingers to your shoulders, and progress to reaching within your range of motion toward the ceiling.  Reverse the process.

Pass a medicine ball around the waist, first in one direction and then the other.

The Detoxifying Bounce

An excellent way to purify the lymphatic system is through the practice of rebounding or through vibration. The low impact of gently jumping on a trampoline promotes the flow of lymph through the body and is believed to increase the drainage of toxins from organs and muscle tissue.  The same is true of using a vibration plate like the Whole Body Vibration stand at EFW.

While EFW does not currently have a trampoline, stacking the thick black mats we have and gently jumping on them, landing with soft knees would provide similar benefits.

The Nutrition Component

Consuming a diet of anti-inflammatory foods, specifically raw fruits, and vegetables, helps hydrate the body and promote an alkaline environment. Since germs cannot flourish amid higher pH, the consumption of these foods expedites the removal of pathogens that may stagnate in lymph fluid.

Some foods that best detoxify the lymphatic system are red fruits and vegetables: pomegranates, raspberries, cherries, beets, and cranberries.

I hope this info is helpful to you. If you would like to learn more about anything you’ve read in this blog or come in and try our Whole Body Vibration plate or Infrared Sauna, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]

​Information for this article was provided by NFPT, July 2019 Trainer Packet.