Aside from bandaging and compression, there are heaps of other things I do to help maintain a good level of lymphatic health and wellness.
The lymphatic system depends on the movement and contraction of the body’s muscles to move lymphatic fluid around. Unlike the circulatory system, which has a pump (our hearts!) to move blood around the body, the lymphatic system is much slower and requires an external force to help reabsorb the liquid. When we move and contract our muscles through exercise, lymph fluid gets pushed out of the tissues, into the lymphatic vessels and ultimately back into the blood circulation.
Exercise is an extremely important part of my lymphedema management and I like to engage in a variety of different types of fitness to give myself a full body workout.
This is definitely the most useful type of exercise for me and I notice a big difference in my leg when I do it regularly. When I swim in the pool, I swim about 1.5km (takes me about 45 minutes) and alternate between laps of freestyle, backstroke and kicking with a board in my hands. Swimming is a full body workout and this is really important to keep in mind because our lymphatic system is a …. system! There is no point working one part (just my legs) when the whole thing needs to move. Incorporating arms into the workout is important for me to flush the entire lymphatic system from top to bottom. My underarm nodes get pumped, by back nodes, legs, stomach- everything gets stimulated by the water pressure and muscle pumps.
I try to swim at least twice a week and in the summer months I go to the beach most days and do a bit of legwork (like walking in waist deep water and using a pool noodle as a ‘bike’ and pedal my legs out deeper in the water).
Aqua Biking (Aqua Cycling)
I am such a fan of aqua biking and for anyone who hates the thought of having to swim laps in a pool- this exercise might just be the perfect one for you! It’s basically an adapted exercise bike that sits in the water and you pedal on it like you would a normal land bike. The difference is that you work against the pressure of the water and due to the effects of hydrostatic pressure, it acts like a natural lymphatic drainage. I do 30-minute sessions of this in between my swimming days (usually once a week but I would love to do more). This summer my goal is to go to the beach club down the road from my house and use their aqua bikes every day!
For all aqua activities, I take off my compression garment. You do not need to swim with compression on if your body is submerged for the majority of time in the water. See more information about that here.
Classic gym exercises
I don’t have a gym membership as I prefer to workout in the outdoors. I have bought myself some elastic resistance bands that I tie to trees, door frames and whatever else will take them and use them to do light strengthening exercises (mainly upper body). I also do all the classic leg exercises that build and strengthen muscles- squats, lunges, any kind of movement that makes the muscles contract to pump the liquid.
This is something I have recently added to my exercise routine and its an awesome, fun way to workout. Jumping on a mini trampoline is known to help stimulate lymphatic fluid movement and is a great cardiovascular workout. People of all fitness levels can do it (some trampolines can be bought with support frames that you hold onto for better balance). Although there is no actual research in relation to the benefits of improving lymphedema, rebounding is widely used and loved by heaps of lymphies. Please note: definitely get your doctor’s clearance before rebounding if you have had cancer treatment and/ or surgery (particularly for women who have had cervical cancer or invasive surgery/ removal of organs etc)…
Skin and Nail Care
Ensuring your skin and nails are in very good condition is the first step to avoiding infections and keeping your lymphie limb as healthy as possible.
Moisturising with emollient creams. I generally use emollient creams on my legs because they are very hydrating and recommended by lymphedema therapists. I moisturise every night before I apply my bandages for sleep. During the day I don’t moisturise because I find it rubs off on the compression garment but you totally could (and should) if your skin is dry and needs it.
Waxing instead of shaving. I never shave my legs, I only wax. This helps reduce the risk of cutting my skin or getting ingrown hairs. Most specialists will recommend that we ditch classic razor blades and instead use either wax, hair removal creams or electric shavers. These tend to be less ‘risky’ options than using a razor blade as they inflict less trauma and reduce the chances of cutting the skin.
No pedicures at the beauty salon! Manicures and pedicures can pose a real risk for infection if they are not carefully performed by professional nail technicians that use extremely clean, sterile tools. Medical pedicures exist which are performed by a chiropodist or podiatrist, who possess a skill level that is not seen in your average high-street nail salon. They use much more sophisticated technologies and tools (like laser treatments) to provide a very thorough, sterile treatment of your feet.
I ended up in the hospital with a cellulitis infection in 2013 due to contracting an infection after a pedicure- so I speak from experience!
Nutrition is a big factor in a lot of people’s lymphedema swelling and I certainly notice a difference in mine when I eat certain types of food or consume certain alcoholic beverages. I am not an expert in the field of nutrition but my personal point of view is that if I eat a clean, balanced, fresh diet then I’m doing okay in life!
I don’t follow a strict diet plan and think that my diet is pretty healthy. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables from our local markets, as well as meats, fish and some dairy products. I generally cook at home and avoid processed foods (I simply don’t buy them or have the desire to eat them). I don’t drink carbonated sodas or eat many sugary treats (like candy all day!)… I think I have a pretty balanced, fresh diet.
I like to drink wine and will have a glass or two of red throughout the week. Sometimes more if its a special occasion. Alcohol is one of the things that makes my leg swell so I have to be careful here but at the same time, I enjoy a drink and don’t want to cut every pleasure out of my life because I have LE!
Drinks that I avoid are white wine and champagne because I immediately feel a tightness in my leg when I drink “white alcoholic beverages.” Weird, but there you go.
Elevation and sleeping well
I try to elevate my leg as much as possible. If I’m sitting down I try to put it up on something in front of me (eg: the coffee table!). If I’m a passenger in the car I put it on the dashboard (not if I’m driving of course!!). Any opportunity I get to elevate I do it. 10 minutes is better than nothing! I work at my desk quite a lot during the day so I have put a stool under it to rest my leg on (this makes a huge difference!). Elevation does not greatly change the swelling in my leg and I don’t recommend it as a ‘management tool’ because it’s not. It’s a temporary action you can do to relieve the pressure or swelling but that’s about as therapeutic as elevating gets!
Sleep, as I was told recently by a proper Lymphedema physiotherapist, is crucial to this condition and I couldn’t agree more. I have noticed how lack of sleep has affected my leg. Resting properly during the evenings lets the liquid drain out of the limbs and gives you a fresh start the next day. It’s even more beneficial when combined with night compression.
What about alternative medicines and health food supplements?
To be honest, I don’t really believe these work. I’ve had many people swear by them but for me personally, I haven’t seen any results. I have taken some herbal pills in the past were made of natural products like dandelion leaf and ginko but I didn’t see a difference in swelling. People with Lymphedema have a mechanical problem with our lymphatic systems. Pills will not help the fact that I have significantly fewer lymph nodes in my left leg. What I really need is more lymphatic structures to move the fluid better (hence my lymph node transfer).
If anything, I would recommend you save your money on that kind of stuff and put it towards some fitness classes or new compression garments!