How Much Weight Can You Lose If Edema Goes Away Exercise With Leg Lymphedema

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Exercise With Leg Lymphedema

Fitness Article: Exercise with Leg Lymphedema…

I am writing this article from two perspectives, as a fitness trainer/strength coach who has studied health issues for many years and as a patient who suffers from leg lymphedema on a daily basis. I have been able to keep the lymphedema well, but because I have read extensively on the subject, I listen to doctors, and I have knowledge about exercise. It’s on my mind every day, in almost every moment because it takes a lot of effort to keep it right. I have included a description of lymphedema below.

Lymphedema is a difficult problem to deal with and needs to be taken care of all day, every day. There is no cure for lymphedema. I have lymphedema in my legs since cancer surgery in 1991. I went from being a gymnast and fitness coach who exercised every day to being bedridned after surgery as a result of the lymph nodes removed along with the cancer. My life changed drastically, but I went back to work and learned how to maintain it quickly. Many doctors told me that I would sleep for the rest of my life and never work again. That was in 1991.

So, what is lymphedema? Here is the definition by the National Lymphedema Network…

“Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the interstitial tissue that causes swelling, most often in the arm(s) and/or leg(s), and occasionally in other parts of the body. Lymphedema can develop when the lymphatic vessels are lost or impaired (primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes are removed (secondary).

When the disorder becomes so great that the lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid accumulates in the tissue in the affected area. If left untreated, this stagnant and protein-rich fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size and number, but also reduces the availability of oxygen in the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides a culture medium for bacteria that can cause lymphangitis (infection).

So, what types of exercise can lymphedema patients do? It depends on the patient and whether he has medical permission to exercise. After being cleared for exercise, the best exercise to reduce leg swelling is swimming because the person is horizontal, moving, and doing non-impact movements. The second best exercise for people with leg lymphedema is recumbent cycling. It is also not affected, it is a steady movement, and the leg is slightly raised.

If the patient is in good physical condition otherwise and he has lymphedema under control (as much as possible) he can use the elliptical machine. That is, if it is tolerable from a fitness and medical point of view. Make sure that lymphedema patients have permission from their doctor to do exercise, especially vigorous exercise such as the elliptical. So people with lymphedema OFF THE TREADMILL. Walking and running make the swelling of the feet worse because of the high impact. Imagine someone putting ice cream into an ice cream cone and wrapping it up. The swelling becomes dense, wrapped if not properly cared for. The heavier it is, the harder it is to handle.

In my experience, it can take an hour with the leg up before the swelling even STARTS to go down and several days or weeks to resolve. People with lymphedema should wear compression stockings if their doctor prescribes them and sleep with their feet elevated every night, unless their doctor tells them otherwise. It is important to keep moving and only do non-impact exercises. For example, squats are often better than running lunges for people with lymphedema. Walking lunge is an impact exercise. Do not encourage people with leg lymphedema to participate in exercise classes that include impact exercises. If you’re doing well, a spin class will keep your circulation going and help you lose or maintain a healthy weight. It’s all about keeping your body moving without ANY impact training.

Remember that if the lymphedema is from a recent operation, the patient must be cleared to start exercising because if he starts exercising before the doctor allows him to exercise, he will cause problems with the lymphatic system. My doctor told me that the swelling from the surgery would not go down if I started exercising too much and that I would cause permanent damage. I was told to wait a year after surgery before I was allowed to exercise my leg. I waited 10 months and couldn’t take it anymore. I have to go back to exercise because I love it and it’s my life. Not being allowed to exercise my legs was very difficult because I spent ages in the gym. Again, make sure the lymphedema patient has FULL medical clearance to exercise.

This is where a lot of people don’t understand. When people with lymphedema are immobile and do not have compression stockings on their legs, their legs should be elevated to prevent swelling. Something as simple as waiting in line at the grocery store can cause enough swelling to keep someone in bed the next day. Swelling starts in less than a minute, literally, when standing or sitting without legs up. It is a challenge every minute of every day to keep the legs from swelling and those around lymphedema patients need to be patient and considerate.

There is a lot of information about lymphedema. It is either primary or secondary. Secondary lymphedema will result from cancer surgery. Mine is secondary because I had a lymph node removed from my upper thigh on one leg during cancer surgery. If lymphedema is not controlled, it can develop into elephantitis. Yes, this is a very real and very serious medical condition. There are lymphedema support groups throughout the US. The National Lymphedema Network has a lot of information.

Let me know how I can help you…

Karen Goeller, CSCS

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