Lymphedema – Manual Lymphatic Drainage, Massage and Exercises

In March of 2019, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Due to several factors, I chose to have a double mastectomy with no reconstruction. In addition to the mass that was removed, the surgeon also removed about a dozen axillary lymph nodes, which left me with lymphedema in my right arm and trunk.

It has been amazing to me that there is so little known about lymphedema in the medical community. But fortunately, I was able to get in to see a couple of good physical therapists who had training in lymphedema.

There are 2 types of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by a malformation of the lymph system. It can be congenital but if there is a history in the family, a child might be more prone to this malformation, so it is also said to be hereditary. Primary lymphedema can show up for the first time at any age from birth to your senior years. Secondary lymphedema is usually caused by some sort of damage to the lymph system. In my case, removal of lymph nodes.

Lymphedema is not picky; it occurs in both males and females of all ages. It is not curable, but it is manageable with just a little work and lifestyle changes.

As a disclaimer here, I am not a medical professional. I highly encourage you to seek out a professional that specialized in lymphedema. Insist that you at least be referred to a physical therapist with training in lymphatic diseases. This is a very painful disease and can be totally debilitating if it is not properly diagnosed and managed.

The purpose in managing your lymphedema is to move the lymph fluid. If you have missing chains of nodes or damaged nodes, the fluid will pool in that area and not get moved through the circulatory system. How do you do that? Manual lymphatic drainage and massage, compression, exercise and diet. Proper wrapping of your effected limb at night and compression garments during the day. Please talk to your lymphedema professional and have them help you get the proper fit on your garments and learning to properly wrap your affected limbs. Improper wrapping or ill-fitting compression garments can worsen your condition in a very short period. Improper wrapping can cause you to swell up quickly over night!

Your diet plays a big role in your lymphedema management as well. If you are at a normal weight, you are probably already eating a healthy diet. If you are overweight or obese, then try to lose some weight. You will see a change in your lymphedema. Lymphedema is not caused initially by being overweight but there is evidence that extra weight can, over time, cause damage to your lymph system. Losing weight and eating a healthy diet will make a difference in your lymphedema.

In this video, I will show you some manual lymphatic drainage massage techniques as well as some exercises to help you to move the lymph fluid in your abdomen and upper limbs. If you have kidney or liver issues, please check with your physician before doing this.

The manual lymphatic drainage should be done once a day. Typically, in the morning, after you remove your bandages and before you put on your compression sleeve. Always start with the unaffected side. This demo is geared towards right arm lymphedema. If your lymphedema is in your left arm, then you will need to start some of these massages with your right side.

Lymphatic massage is done very lightly and slowly. Your lymph nodes are just below the surface of your skin. You don’t want to compress them.  You just want to gently wake them up and move the fluid through them. Think of them as coffee filters! As the lymph fluid moved through the nodes, they will clean the fluid before sending it to your circulatory system.