What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. Fluid builds up in soft body tissues and causes swelling. It is a common problem that may be caused by cancer and cancer treatment. Lymphedema usually affects an arm or leg, but it can also affect other parts of the body. Lymphedema can cause long-term physical, psychological, and social problems for patients. Lymphedema often occurs in breast cancer patients who had all or part of their breast removed and axillary (underarm) lymph nodes removed.

30% of breast cancer survivors develop Lymphedema. 

Lymphedema causes:

  • Swelling of an arm or leg, which may include fingers and toes.
  • Trouble moving a joint in the arm or leg.
  • Thickening and tightening of the skin, with or without skin changes such as blisters or warts.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Pain
  • Daily activities and the ability to work or enjoy hobbies may be affected by lymphedema.

These symptoms may occur very slowly over time or more quickly.  But once it occurs if there is an infection or injury to the arm or leg.

There’s no cure for lymphedema. Treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and controlling the pain. The lack of a cure is a large contributor to stress of a cancer survivors even after any cancer treatments have been successfully completed. Therefore, actively trying to reduce any risk of developing lymphedema is vital to those that have not yet contracted.

Source: Journal of Clinical Oncology 

How to prevent or manage Lymphedema:

So, how does yoga help manage Lymphedema or reduce the risk of developing Lymphedema? The answer is simple: By stimulating and supporting the Lymphatic System.

We come now to the lymphatic system, which when stimulated through yoga, can be your most powerful tool to keep the Immune System strong. The lymphatic system is an infrastructure, starting with a lymph highway—a network of tiny channels that form a one-way passage for lymph fluid to travel throughout the body. This is similar to the cardiovascular system, which you know consists of veins and arteries allowing blood to circulate. Unlike the cardiovascular/circulatory system, however, the lymph highway has stopping points for examination, the detention centers or reprocessing plants called lymph nodes. All day and night, lymph fluid, containing toxins, unwanted bacteria or rogue cancer cells, collects throughout the body. In fact, during a normal day in a normal body, one to two liters of lymph fluid are moved through the body. (Source: http://www.womens-health-advice.com/lymphatic-system.html) Therefore, the lymphatic system is vital to maintain health.

A tiny space surrounds most cells, filled with a clear fluid called interstitial fluid. Every cell is suspended, continually nurtured by the blood supply with proteins, vitamins, hormones and antibodies. Oxygen and nutrients from blood plasma flow through openings in the capillary walls into the interstitial fluid to feed and maintain cells. During the process of feeding, cells throw off by-products that are considered waste. This could be anything—dead cells, bacteria, viruses, or other foreign agents.

Suspended in interstitial fluid, the debris is then delivered to the lymph system through tiny lymphatic capillaries of the lymph highway, like debris floating down a sewer system on its way to a treatment plant. When the interstitial fluid begins its journey into the lymph system’s tiny canals, it is called lymph fluid. All day and night, lymph fluid collects throughout the body. In fact, during a normal day in a normal body, four liters of lymph fluid are moved through the body and eliminated. (For images and information about the thoracic duct, the largest lymphatic vessel, go to http://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/female-abdomen)

Lymph flows through the tiny tunnels connecting nodes, ducts and glands along the way that serve as containers for examination—the detention centers or reprocessing plants, otherwise known as lymph nodes. Here, the secret agent team of examiners, including lymphocytes and antibodies, wait to sort through the waste for errant cells and toxic elements.

These secret agents will attack rogue cells like cancer once they both arrive in a “detention center.” It is here that the T-cells and other disease-fighting agents meet up with the invaders, or mutating cells, from within the body. If, for instance, the right antibody from a flu vaccine is present to neutralize this year’s strain, it happens here. The potential threat is irrigated out of the body without causing infection.

If it is not, the lymph node or gland enlarges as a sign that there is a “stranger.” The virus is isolated while the rest of the Immune System rallies assistance. That is why doctors inspect the nodes where they are close to the skin surface such as under the arms, in the groin, and on the upper chest.

Nodes vary in size and density throughout the body. More of them are located in places like the mouth, nasal passages, and neck where food and toxins first enter the body. The stomach and intestines are surrounded by lymph glands that are constantly examining waste. In the body’s center is the main and most important lymph node—so big it is called a duct. It is here that the lymph fluid collects and is conveyed into the venous circulation system to be filtered and flushed out of the body through the spleen, kidneys, liver, and finally, the bladder. The thoracic duct is the main detention center of the lymphatic system. It runs parallel to and is nestled close to the spinal column from the top of the lumbar spine (lumbar 2) to the base of the neck (thoracic 1 and cervical 7).

Why do we care? Because the location and function of this duct forms the scientific foundation of yoga’s healing power. The thoracic duct along its narrow, long vertical path is in constant contact with the movement of the horizontal diaphragm muscle, which is massaged by the action of breathing. This knowledge reveals a little secret and creates magic to aid recovery and maintain lifelong health for everyone, not only for the cancer patient and survivor. It is key to the y4c Methodology.

Keeping our lymph fluids moving is critical to our health as well, and essential to our immunity. However, unlike the heart of the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system has no specific muscle. So to cleanse, revitalize and detoxify our body, the lymphatic system depends on other muscles and gravity to move lymphatic fluids. Here is where I begin to make the case that yoga can be the organ muscle of the lymphatic system. Details on how this works are found in Yoga for Cancer, Chapter 3, “Benefit 1: Yoga Detoxifies the Body” (page 67).

The human body has two fluid highways: blood and lymph. They are similar in structure, but have differences. Lymph has checkpoints along its passageway: nodes, glands, and ducts. We want the content of the lymph fluid to stop for examination, but not stay or linger long. Yet, we want the blood to flow continuously without interruption.