This week, we’re excited to partner with Sue Callison, who will share her top 3 self-care tips for managing lymphedema. Sue is the founder of Solidea U.S. and a breast cancer survivor who developed lymphedema from her treatments. Sue has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to compression garments as well as the lymphedema condition. I hope you enjoy this guest blog post!
For many years, I didn’t realize a big part of why I was feeling so crappy all the time was because of my lymphedema. Through a process of elimination, I figured out that besides just the swelling, the unwell feelings, body discomfort, nausea, and brain fog all stemmed from the backup of lymphatic fluid in my body.
The hard part with lymphedema is that depending on where your damage is or how extensive it is will determine your approach to managing your lymphedema. There’s no one-size-fits-all all self-care routine. Unfortunately, because of the inconsistencies in medical care, you’re often left on your own to figure out how to help yourself feel better so you can get back to living your life.
I’m not a doctor or healthcare professional; I’m just someone with lymphedema sharing my experience. Always check with your healthcare team before starting any new self-care routine. I get how isolating and discouraging dealing with lymphedema daily can be, so I’m sharing my three easiest and most effective self-care go-to’s.
Although my body’s reaction varies, the difference I feel before and after I do my self-care is still amazing. Consistent self-care is essential to prevent symptoms from becoming life-sucking with lymphedema. Let’s dive into how we can take better care of ourselves
1. Wearing Compression Garments
The absolute number one way to manage your lymphedema and slow its progression is by wearing compression garments. Luckily, today, there are so many different styles, compression strengths, and options that can fit each person’s situation.
- Massaging Compression
- Classic Medical Compression: off-the-shelf or custom-made
- Velcro Wraps
- Nighttime Garments
- Compression Pumps
Unfortunately, there can be a bit of trial and error until you find what works best for you. If you’re lucky enough to have a lymphedema therapist or an educated medical professional, work with them. For those who don’t, always ensure you are compressing at least one full body segment ahead of your swelling. For example, if the swelling goes down into your ankle, your foot should also have compression so the fluid doesn’t become trapped.
The reality is the more progressed your lymphedema is, the fewer options you have. At this point, you’re fighting to keep your lymphedema from becoming ultimately life-debilitating.
If you are lucky enough to get diagnosed and manage your lymphedema from an early stage, do it! It’s much easier to keep yourself from progressing rather than trying to undo the damage that has already been done.
The type, strength, and amount of time you have to wear compression will depend on the stage of your lymphedema. If you’re being preventative, you will most likely only need to wear a garment while flying, exercising, or doing repetitive cleaning and vacuuming. If your lymphedema has reared its ugly head, you will have to wear compression garments throughout the day and possibly at night. I get this can be downright depressing and overwhelming, but I promise the alternative is absolutely not worth it.
When first diagnosed, I was prescribed tight, extremely uncomfortable medical compression garments that didn’t give me results.
I discovered Solidea, an innovative Italian compression garment manufacturer. After trying their garments, I was blown away by how easy they were to wear and the results I got from them. They made my body feel closer to its old self and even more energized. I could focus more on my life and less on my lymphedema. This might sound a bit cheesy, but they gave me my hope back.
My number one self-care practice for my lymphedema continues to be wearing Solidea’s Active Massage Compression Garments every day. Solidea’s compression garments work on an entirely different principle than classic compression wear. Instead of tight compression designed to hold in fluid, Solidea’s Active Massage garments are designed with lower compression paired with a wave pattern that stimulates and moves fluid. If you want to learn more about the difference between classic medical compression and massaging compression, click here.
2. Gentle Exercise
For anyone with lymphedema, exercise and movement are crucial parts of self-care. Unlike our circulatory system, which has the heart as a pump, our lymphatic system does not have a central pump and only goes in one general direction. It is mainly through muscle contractions that lymph fluid moves through the system. No movement equals a stagnant lymph system. Visualize a vacuum cleaner; if the hose is clogged, it won’t be able to take in what’s on the floor. The higher the clog, the more it backs up. To learn more about how the lymphatic system works, click here.
However, exercising with lymphedema can be tricky because it increases circulation, which, in turn, increases the fluid leaking into your tissues from your circulatory system. How impaired your lymphatic system is will determine how well it can handle this extra fluid. Therefore, always start very slowly and builds up over time. Here are my favorite gentle exercises that help me feel a little lighter:
Deep breathing is an exercise for your lymphatic system and can be practiced throughout the day. To get a much deeper breath, I breathe through my nose while visualizing the air going deep into my lungs. This forces my nostrils to open more and my belly to rise. There are lots of online guides for techniques on deep breathing you can try. I especially focus on deep breathing while doing any exercise.
Even though it’s not one of my favorite things, walking is one of the quickest and easiest ways to move the lymph system after sitting for a while. It also helps to get out and often into a new mindset. Bonus: My dog loves it too!
The shift in body position and movement changes your weight distribution, supporting lymph movement. So bring your sneakers if you are stuck in the office.
There is no need to speed walk or force yourself to go for very long. If you enjoy walking, you can increase the length or go faster.
For everybody, especially those more limited with what they can do, stretching is a fabulous way to feel better and move lymph. It’s a gentle way to create muscle contractions. There are endless numbers of stretching or even gentle yoga routines that you can search for online. The one thing I would say is to be thoughtful in the order you do your stretches. Always remember to start with your core (both front and back) and move outward.
Recently, I discovered that doing a circuit of 4 or more different types of sit-ups clears my core, which is extremely helpful in moving my lymph. I do one set of each sit-up until I feel my muscles. I take a break between each exercise and take 3-5 deep breaths.
To see me in action, here is a link to a video I did click here.
Light Strength Training
Initially, the medical community thought lifting would increase swelling, but trials and research have proven this is a very effective part of self-care. When you lift, you contract and release muscles, which is a much stronger pump for your lymphatic system.
I find it essential to clear your core (like in my sit-ups above) before lifting with your arms or legs so your lymphatic fluid will have a pathway to drain. As with everything else with lymphedema, you must be very thoughtful about the weight and reps so it suits your situation.
Since I swell fairly easily, I find doing one rep with low or no weight (depending on which body part I’m working out) works well. There are a ton of gentle strength training routines if you search online.
For those of us lucky enough to have access to a pool, this is by far the best self-care option for everyone with lymphedema. Whether you do laps, water exercise, walk, or hang out, water offers incredible benefits and relief for lymphedema because it provides natural graduated compression. The deeper the water, the more compression.
Further, boost your lymphatic system by adding a few deep belly breaths and taking a few dives down as far as you can go in the deep end. I find the increased pressure has an amazing effect. I did a video quite a while ago of my swimming routine (P.S. We are no longer Solidea Medical; we are now Solidea U.S. 😊). If you are interested in checking it out, click here.
Finding a balance between gentle exercise to stimulate your lymphatic system and resting to give it a chance to reset is an absolute must.
3. Rest, Rest, Rest!
Most days, I wake up and feel good and ready to go. But by noon, I start to feel a little fullness in my head, which puts pressure on my eyes. I have to think harder to find words and concentrate much harder to stay focused. My body starts to feel heavy, fatigued, and like I’m hitting a wall. If you experience this, you know exactly what I mean.
After many years of trying to fight through but losing almost every time, I discovered that taking a break at that point allows my body to reset so I can have the second half of my day.
For me, laying horizontally in bed with my legs up allows my body to stop working against itself. This is hard to do and sometimes makes me feel like others judge me for being “lazy.” However, I’ve found that more times than not, I feel way better, so I can get way more done.
These days, instead of working until I hit a wall, I check in with how my body and mind are feeling.
Some questions that help me are:
- Is my brain feeling foggy?
- Have I stopped being able to focus or think clearly?
- Am I losing my words or train of thought?
- Does my body feel heavy or achy?
- Do I feel like I want to jump out of my skin?
If I answer yes to any of these questions, if I can, I stop what I’m doing and lie down. Sometimes, this looks like a 20-minute power nap. Other times, I need to lie in bed for a more extended period.
For me, lying down is one of the hardest self-care practices, but without it, I become utterly useless by the end of the day. It’s well worth the 20 minutes to an hour of rest for a chance to move on with your day.
I hope this helps you! ~ Sue ❤️
Disclaimer – This blog is for general information purposes only. Furthermore, the information in this blog is not a substitute for medical advice – always consult a licensed healthcare professional for advice on your specific condition.