MOVING LYMPHdiaphragmatic breathing & lymphedema

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is one of the easiest ways to move lymphatic fluid through your system, which in turn helps to eliminate toxins and benefit lymphedema. Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system has no active pump to move the lymphatic fluid back into the bloodstream. Therefore, adequate lymph flow depends significantly on muscle and joint activity, especially if the lymphatic system is compromised.


The largest lymphatic vessel in the human body is the thoracic duct. This vessel drains the lower extremities, pelvis, abdomen, left side of the thorax, left upper extremity, and left side of the head and neck. That’s about 75% of the lymph from the entire body. The right lymphatic duct drains the rest of the body, including the right upper limb, right breast, right lung, and right side of the head and neck.

Lymph movement in the thoracic duct is mainly caused by breathing aided by the duct’s smooth muscle and internal valves preventing the lymph from flowing back. Therefore, abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing exercises are valuable in stimulating deep lymphatic flow.


A prominent lymphologist, Dr. Jack Shields, conducted a study in 1979 showing that deep diaphragmatic breathing causes the lungs to press into the thoracic duct, which pushes the fluid back into the bloodstream where it belongs. Lymph fluid from the lower extremities passes through these deep lymphatic structures. An increased flow of lymph, particularly in the thoracic duct, results in improved lymphatic drainage from the lower extremities. Individuals affected by lymphedema greatly benefit from diaphragmatic breathing exercises, especially when combined with a comprehensive decongestive exercise regimen.

While muscular movement helps the lymphatic system, deep breathing is equally important. The up-and-down movement of the diaphragm during deep abdominal breathing is essential for the sufficient return of lymphatic fluid back into the bloodstream. Diaphragm movement, combined with the movements of the abdomen, assists in recovering blood back to the heart.


Just breathe; it’s simple to do. First, breathe deeply through your nose and hold for four counts, then exhale for two. As you improve, you can increase the time, exhaling twice as long as inhaling. This rhythmic breathing brings oxygen to the blood and activates the lymphatic system.

One way to practice this breathing is by blowing up a balloon. Another way is to blow into a small cocktail straw. Perform deep diaphragmatic breathing two or three times a session, three times a day. If you need further instructions, here is an excellent YouTube video explaining deep diaphragmatic breathing.


Managing lymphedema can be challenging, but living a full and active life is possible despite this condition. Make sure you follow your treatment plan, exercise regularly, wear your compression garments, manage your stress, and breathe, which is the simplest of ways!

Let’s move some lymph. Everyone take a deep breath!


Disclaimer – This blog is for general information purposes only. Furthermore, the information contained in this blog is not intended as a substitute for medical advice – always consult a licensed healthcare professional for advice on your specific condition. Any reliance you place on this information is at your own risk.


  • Catherine F Molstad says:

    will certainly start the exercise now….seems simple enough. summer is not my friend with swelling ankles and legs….

    • The heat does seem to have an affect on lymphedema for a lot of people. I’m glad you found this story helpful! Thank you for you comment I appreciate the feedback.

  • Dear Theresa,

    Thank you for this interesting article on diaphragmatic breathing.

    I love the thought of blowing up a balloon for health! Not only does it improve deep breathing, but lung capacity as well. Years ago, an integrative medical doctor recommended I blow up a balloon daily until it explodes! Since you never know when it will happen, the sound tempers your immune system. I was too chicken to do it that close to my face a second time, so I hit it with my hairbrush thereafter and forgot all about it, Until Now.

    Thank you, too, for those “Take a deep breath” reminders. I’ve breathed shallowly my whole life and these reminders are just what I needed. 🙂 May you be blessed.

    • I think it’s a good reminder for all of us! Not only physically but mentally as well. Slow down, be present, breathe! Thank you for your comments, I do so appreciate the feedback. I don’t know if I would be able to explode the balloon so close to my face either. 🙂

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