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6 Best Exercises for Arm Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

Breast cancer surgery is often associated with lymphedema due to the removal of surrounding lymph nodes along with cancerous breast tissue. Most commonly, the axillary lymph nodes (lymph nodes under the arm) are removed, which results in blockage of the lymphatic system, leading to lymphedema. Lymphedema usually causes pain, swelling and restricted movements of the arm where lymph nodes have been removed. During the post-recovery period of breast cancer treatment, it is important for women to perform certain exercises under supervision, in order to improve lymphatic flow, reduce swelling and relieve stiffness of the arms.

There may be some exercises which can be performed right after surgery, some after your drain has been removed and some exercises as the healing process continues. It is advised to consult your doctor before performing these exercises. Let us look at some best exercises indicated for arm lymphedema after breast cancer surgery:

  • Shoulder shrugs and shoulder circles

Keeping your chin tucked in, slowly lift your shoulders upwards close to your ears with both shoulders at the same level. Hold the position for 5-10 seconds and release, dropping your shoulders down. Repeat the exercise 5-10 times.

Slowly rotate your shoulders upwards and forwards followed by backward and downward rotation, forming circles. Keep your chin slightly tucked in. Repeat the exercise 5-10 times in each direction.

  • Arm lifts

This exercise can be performed in a sitting or standing position. Clasp both your hands together by interlocking your fingers at chest level. Point your elbows outwards and slowly lift your arms taking your clasped hands above your head until you feel a mild stretch. Hold the position for 1-2 seconds and return to original position. Repeat the exercise 5-10 times.

  • Shoulder blade squeeze

This exercise can be performed by sitting on a chair or standing. If you are sitting, it is advised to sit straight without taking back support from the chair. Place your arms by your side, keeping them straight with your fingers pointing downwards and inner surface of palms facing your thighs. Gently expand your chest and squeeze your shoulders backwards, bringing your shoulder blades together. Hold the position for 5-10 seconds by taking deep breaths and return to original position. Repeat the exercise 5-10 times.

  • Side wall stretches

Stand 2 feet away from a wall sideways, with your affected arm facing the wall. Slowly run your fingertips upwards on the wall as high as you can until you feel a mild stretch in your arm. Ensure that your body remains straight and torso faces forward while performing this exercise. Return to the original position and repeat the exercise 5-10 times.

  • Shoulder pumping

Lie down on the side of your unaffected arm with the arm facing outwards. You may use a pillow for support. Slowly stretch your other arm in the same position of the unaffected arm, above heart level, ensuring that you are opening and closing your hand. Repeat this 15-25 times. Then slowly bend your elbow inwards and stretch it outwards. Repeat this exercise 15-25 times. This exercise will help improve circulation and reduce swelling.

  • Sideways arm movement

This exercise may be performed while lying on the back on plain floor or bed. Gently extend your arms outwards and stretch them above your head, until fingers of both your hands come in contact. Then slowly bring them down close to your thighs. Repeat the exercise 3-5 times.

These exercises must be performed carefully with gentle movements, proper breathing techniques and any sudden jerky movements must be avoided. The exercises must only be performed until mild stretches are felt and any movement causing more pain or discomfort must immediately be discontinued.

References:

  1. Exercises after Breast Surgery: A guide for women. American Cancer Society.

http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/library-site/Documents/Exercises-after-breast-surgery.pdf Accessed on 2 July, 2021.

  • Lymphedema and Exercise. Breast Cancer Community.

https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/lymphedema/exercise Accessed on 2 July, 2021.

  • Breast Cancer: Lymphedema After Treatment. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/breast-cancer/breast-cancer-lymphedema-after-treatment Accessed on 2 July, 2021.

  • Exercises after Breast Cancer Surgery. American Cancer Society.

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/surgery-for-breast-cancer/exercises-after-breast-cancer-surgery.html Accessed on 2 July, 2021.

  • Exercises after mastectomy or breast conserving surgery. Cancer Research UK.

https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/surgery/after-surgery/exercises-after-mastectomy-or-lumpectomy Accessed on 2 July, 2021.

  • Cavanaugh K. Effects of Early Exercise on the Development of Lymphedema in Patients With Breast Cancer Treated With Axillary Lymph Node Dissection. J Oncol Pract. (2011); 7(2):89-93. Accessed on 2 July, 2021.
  • Sagen A, Kåresen R, Risberg MA. Physical activity for the affected limb and arm lymphedema after breast cancer surgery: A prospective, randomized controlled trial with two years follow-up. Acta Oncologica. (2009); 48:1102–1110.

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6 Best Exercises for Arm Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

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