Strength Training Doesn’t Worsen Lymphedema, May Actually Help

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Women who have had breast cancer surgery usually are told to avoid strength training -- also called resistance training or weight lifting -- to avoid worsening any lymphedema (pronounced LIMF-eh-DEE-ma) that might develop after surgery.

A study seems to disprove this advice. The researchers found that strength training doesn't worsen lymphedema after breast cancer surgery and actually can help reduce the symptoms associated with lymphedema as well as the risk of lymphedema flare-ups.

Between 5% and 25% of women develop some lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. Lymphedema is a build-up of lymph fluid in the arm, which causes swelling. (Edema is the medical term for swelling.) Lymph fluid normally drains from body tissues through the lymph nodes and lymph channels. If some lymph nodes and channels are removed or damaged during surgery, lymph fluid doesn't drain properly and collects in the tissue near the surgery site. Lymphedema can cause other symptoms such as tingling, numbness, stiffness, and weakness. Still, those problems can happen after breast cancer surgery even without lymphedema.

In this study, 141 women who developed lymphedema after breast cancer surgery were split into two groups. About half the women kept doing whatever exercise they were doing before the study started. The other women started doing whole-body (including arms) resistance exercises using weights 2 times per week. When the study started, the women's lymphedema was stable (not getting better or worse). The women were monitored for 1 year.

The women who started whole-body resistance exercises using weights:

  • had better upper body strength
  • were no more likely to have the lymphedema get worse
  • were more likely to have lymphedema improve
  • were less likely to have occasional lymphedema flare-ups

compared to women who didn't do resistance exercises.

Resistance training can improve arm and shoulder strength. Stronger arms and shoulders can help women get back to work and other personal activities that be might difficult after breast cancer surgery, especially if lymphedema develops. Still, the researchers caution that all women with lymphedema must be careful not to injure the arm during any exercise because bruises and scrapes can make lymphedema worse and cause complications, such as infection.

While these results are encouraging, it's important to note that this is only one small study. Some doctors may not want to change their recommendation to avoid resistance exercise after breast cancer surgery if lymphedema develops until more research is done. Still, if resistance training was part of your exercise routine before surgery, or if you're looking to build strength after surgery, you might want to talk to your doctor about the results of this study. Depending on your unique situation, you may want to ask your doctor if a referral to a physical or occupational therapy specialist with experience treating breast cancer surgery side effects makes sense. These specialists have experience with specific treatments and exercises that may improve your situation.

For more information on managing and avoiding lymphedema, visit the Lymphedema pages.

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