Yoga and Lymphedema Risk

Updated 
August 31, 2015

Lymphedemainfo-icon happens when lymphinfo-icon fluid builds up in the hand, arm, breast, chest wallinfo-icon or under the arm on the side where you have cancer, resulting in swelling and other possible symptoms.  

Anyone who has breast cancer surgeryinfo-icon or radiation therapyinfo-icon to the lymph nodes has some lifetime risk of lymphedema. That risk is highest in the 3 years after treatment. To learn more about lymphedema risk factors, early warning signs and preventioninfo-icon, visit our Side Effects section.


How Can I Reduce Risk of Lymphedema During Yoga Practice?

You can take precautions to reduce your lymphedemainfo-icon risk. Research shows a strength-building program should start and progress very slowly. Your healthcare team should advise you on the best starting weight for you.

Be careful with poses that put your full weight, or a large percentage of it, on your arms. As a beginner, choose poses that keep your hands off the floor. You may also use the wall for support when others use the floor. Finding the right yogainfo-icon program may be the best help.

Slow-moving, rhythmic movements in yoga may help prevent lymphedema because they encourage lymphinfo-icon flow. Pay attention to the arm near the area where lymph nodes were removed and near areas that had radiationinfo-icon. If those areas feel full or heavy, fatigued, achy or tingling, stop and rest. When those sensations persist, check with your doctor.

If I Have Lymphedema or Am at High Risk, Is Yoga Safe for Me?

Little research has been done on the safety of yogainfo-icon for women with lymphedemainfo-icon. Talk with your healthcare providers. They may recommend you wear compression garments to compress your arm, hand or torso during, and for an hour after, yoga sessions. They may also recommend that you monitor the temperature where you practice. The room should not be hot.

You may especially benefit from yoga breathing exercises and slow poses believed to enhance lymphinfo-icon flow. Modify your practice. Avoid poses that involve bearing weight on the arms, or introduce them cautiously, slowly and progressively. Examples of weight-bearing poses are Downward Dog, Plank and Cobra.

Tips to Lessen Your Risk of Lymphedema During Yoga

  • Make an appointment with a physical therapistinfo-icon specializing in lymphedemainfo-icon before getting started. Ask about safe movements and poses.
  • Do not overuse or overexert the arm on the side you had surgeryinfo-icon.
  • Avoid vigorous or repetitive activities with the affected arm.
  • Do not practice in a heated room. Hot yogainfo-icon, power yoga and Bikram yoga are usually done in heated rooms.
  • Progress slowly in your practice.
  • Don’t hesitate to modify your poses or rest when you feel tired, even if other students are moving.
  • Advocate for yourself! Let your instructor know you don’t want adjustments, the common practice of assisting you more deeply into yoga poses, which may result in injury. Ask for props, breaks and other help when you need it.

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