Movement Therapy Decreases Lymphedema
movement therapy
Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick

Registered Kinesiologist and Human Movement Specialist


Movement Therapy Helps Lymphedema

Up to 40% of cancer patients will be diagnosed with lymphedema – a side effect from cancer treatment.

Although most people associate lymphedema with breast cancer, patients with head and neck, gynecological, and other forms of cancer are also susceptible.  And lymphedema isn’t limited to the arms and legs, it can affect other parts of the body as well.

What is Lymphedema?

Fluid (lymph) that would normally flow freely throughout the body builds up in certain areas causing swelling.  This occurs because the system that moves this fluid around your body – the lymphatic system – has been altered in some way during the course of cancer treatment.


movement therapy


This can be due to surgery and removal of lymph nodes or it can be from other forms of treatment, like radiation, that damages the lymph nodes and vessels.  Certain types of chemotherapy have also been found to increase the risk of lymphedema.


Lymphedema may occur right after surgery or it can take months or even years for symptoms to develop.  Patients can feel swelling, heaviness, numbness, and skin tightness – and if lymphedema progresses, there will be visible changes to the skin.


Lymphedema Side Effects

Besides being painful, lymphedema can affect your function.  When there’s extra fluid around the joints it makes it more difficult to move.


In addition, when there’s swelling, it makes it harder for nutrients to get to certain parts of the body.  This affects wound healing and can lead to infections.  When patients have pain and cannot function as they would like, there are negative psychological affects like depression that can occur as well.


According to the National Lymphedema Network, lymphedema has the tendency to decrease the movement of muscles.  And that’s why range of motion exercises are important to reduce complications of lymphedema as well as manage lymphedema.


National Lymphedema Network


Evaluating Lymphedema

The easiest, quickest, and most cost effective way to evaluate lymphedema is by taking measurements.  If it’s possible, have your baseline measurements taken prior to treatment. 


Then you’ll know what your ‘normal’ is and have a guideline for comparison after you’ve completed treatment.


Lymphedema is generally seen within the first couple years post treatment but remember, everyone is different.


movement therapy


It’s important to follow the safety precautions as well as being pro-active to limit risk factors and stay on top of the recommendations that limit your risk of being diagnosed with lymphedema.


After treatment, if you feel any symptoms, you’ll be able to have measurements re-taken and compared to your values.  For example, a breast cancer patient scheduled for surgery on the right side can have measurements taken beforehand – of both the right and the left arm.  This is her baseline.


Then if she suspects lymphedema later on, measurements can be taken and compared to her baseline to see if there are any changes to the circumference of her arm and also between the right and left sides.


Movement Therapy and Lymphedema


Research of cancer patients with and without lymphedema has shown two important things.


Patients without lymphedema do NOT increase their risk of lymphedema by exercising.


And second, for patients with lymphedema, exercise has been shown to improve lymphedema and is recommended for patients with lymphedema to help reduce symptoms.


It’s important to ensure following a slow and progressive approach to exercise if you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema. has indicated that it is important to move the body part that is affected by lymphedema.  Research shows that use of muscles helps with lymphatic drainage.  It is important to utilize movement therapy to keep joint flexibility and reduce muscle tightness.


Lymphedema Side Effects


One of the biggest risk factors for lymphedema is obesity.


This is another reason that movement therapy has been recommended for breast cancer patients.  Movement therapy is important to ensure proper mobility and body biomechanics.  It is also important to reduce effects of lymphedema.



As outlined by safety is always the most important factor with any exercise program so you need to start slowly, know your risk factors, and work within your own personal boundaries.  See your Cancer Movement Therapist to ensure you are provided with a proper movement therapy program.


To get started on movement therapy specifically to support breast cancer lymphedema, check out this video.

Movement Therapy Routine for Better Mobility After Breast Cancer

Of course, make sure you have the consent from your Regulated Health Professional before commencing any exercise program.


If you want to fast track your success with movement and getting back to the activities you love, get your name on the waitlist for the next breast cancer online training.


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