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Yoga & lymphedema risk

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Lymphedema happens when lymph fluid builds up in the hand, arm, breast, chest wall or under the arm on the side where you have cancer, resulting in swelling and other possible symptoms.

Anyone who has breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy 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 prevention, visit our page on lymphedema.

How can I reduce the risk of lymphedema during yoga practice?

You can take precautions to reduce your lymphedema 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 yoga program may be the best help.

Slow-moving, rhythmic movements in yoga may help prevent lymphedema because they encourage lymph flow. Pay attention to the arm near the area where lymph nodes were removed and near areas that had radiation. 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 yoga for women with lymphedema. 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 lymph flow. Modify your practice. Avoid poses that involve bearing weight on the arms, or introduce them 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 therapist specializing in lymphedema before getting started. Ask about safe movements and poses.
  • Do not overuse or overexert the arm on the side you had surgery.
  • Avoid vigorous or repetitive activities with the affected arm.
  • Do not practice in a heated room. Hot yoga, 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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Reviewed and updated: October 9, 2018

Reviewed by: Mary Pullig-Schatz MD

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Living Beyond Breast Cancer is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to create a world that understands there is more than one way to have breast cancer. To fulfill its mission of providing trusted information and a community of support to those impacted by the disease, Living Beyond Breast Cancer offers on-demand emotional, practical, and evidence-based content. For over 30 years, the organization has remained committed to creating a culture of acceptance — where sharing the diversity of the lived experience of breast cancer fosters self-advocacy and hope. For more information, learn more about our programs and services.

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