Gentle Recovery

Lymph Drainage Exercises

Breast Cancer Related Lymphoedema (BCRL), and Why Lymph Drainage Exercises are so Important.

My work as a physiotherapist prescribing exercise taught me that a fundamental factor when deciding to start a new exercise program and then sticking to it is understanding exactly why it is going to benefit your health and wellbeing.

In the case of starting daily lymph drainage exercises, knowing what your lymphatic system is, what its job is, what lymphoedema is, and how exercise can help is fundamentally important.

I also believe that in understanding the lymph system; where the vessels run and where the nodes are situated will help when doing the exercises as you will be able to visualise how the exercises are assisting the drainage of the lymph back into the blood circulation, thus reducing swelling.

These exercises are for everyone who has had breast surgery, lymph node removal and/or radiation. If you do not have lymphoedema these exercises can reduce your risk of it occurring, and if you already have lymphoedema these exercises can help reduce swelling and prevent it from progressing. Always get consent from your oncologist to start these exercises.

What is Lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a swelling (oedema) that develops when lymph fluid builds up in the tissues of part of the body.

What causes lymphoedema?

If you have had breast cancer surgery and/or radiation, you may be at risk of lymphoedema. Surgery and radiation can damage the lymph vessels in and around the breast and surgery also often includes the removal of some or all lymph nodes in your armpit on the affected side. When lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, lymph fluid may not be able to drain as it should and instead builds up in the tissues, causing swelling. Breast cancer related lymphoedema (BCRL) can cause swelling of the trunk, breast, arm and hand on the affected side.

People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk of experiencing this side effect.

The great news is that most people who are at risk never develop lymphoedema as the body is amazing at healing and adapting, finding ways to bypass the damaged lymph vessels and nodes. However, lymphoedema can affect people at any time – during active treatment or months or years after treatment.

Understanding the lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It also maintains fluid balance and plays a role in absorbing fats and fat-soluble nutrients.

The lymphatic or lymph system involves an extensive network of vessels that passes through almost all our tissues to allow for the movement of a fluid called lymph. Lymph circulates through the body in a similar way to blood.

There are about 600 lymph nodes found in the body. These nodes swell in response to infection, due to a build-up of lymph fluid, bacteria, or other organisms and immune system cells.

Signs of lymphoedema

Signs to look for include swelling; a feeling of tightness, heaviness or fullness in the fingers, wrist or the whole arm; and aching in the affected area. These signs may begin gradually, and they may come and go. Some people experience pain, redness or fever, which can be caused by an infection called cellulitis in the area with lymphoedema.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. The condition is easier to manage if it is diagnosed and treated early.

Lymphoedema Specialist Services

Referral to a Specialist Lymphoedema team can be very helpful, they can assess you and offer regular monitoring for lymphoedema. They can also fit you for compression garments that can help reduce swelling. They may also offer you treatments such as  lymphoedema massage or low-level laser treatments to help with lymph flow and drainage.

Upper Limb Lymph Drainage Exercises

How do these exercises work?

These simple, gentle exercises can help the proteins in lymph fluid to be reabsorbed. The gentle contraction of the muscles in and around your trunk, chest, arm and shoulder can assist lymph fluid to move back to your blood circulation. Returning the lymph back to the blood should  reduce swelling and gently support your lymphatic system. These daily exercises should only take around 15 minutes a day.

If you already have lymphoedema these exercises can:

  • assists lymph drainage
  • reduce ache if your arm is heavy,
  • keep your joints supple and muscles strong
  • strengthen postural muscles that can help relieve discomfort around the neck and shoulders caused by the extra weight in your arm
  • help to make everyday activities easier.

Keeping Exercises safe

  • Be sure to discuss these exercises with your doctor before you start.
  • If you have recently had surgery, wait until your surgical drains and sutures are out before trying these exercises.
  • If you have been prescribed a compression sleeve please always wear this when exercising.
  • All exercises should be comfortable, strain and pain-free
  • All exercises should be done in a gentle, rhythmical way with the body warm and comfortable
  • Stop exercising if your arm begins to swell or turn red.

For a free lymph drainage exercise guide, i have created a downloadable poster, its available on my website; (it’s at the bottom of the home page).

Please do email me with any questions,

Warmest wishes,

India xx

India Gooderham

India Gooderham’s background is as a Specialist Physiotherapist working in oncology and palliative care in the UK. She is now working as a Cancer Exercise Specialist and Cancer Yoga teacher and is founder of ‘Gentle Recovery’, an online rehabilitation and wellness platform for people affected by cancer. Her mission is to serve, educate and empower people at any stage of their cancer journey through exercise, yoga and wellness online programmes and 1-2-1 online coaching.

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