A Step-By-Step Guide to Arm Lymphedema Exercises

Lymphedema is a collection of fluid in the fatty tissue under the skin that occurs due to a damaged or poorly working lymph system. It usually causes swelling, as well as other symptoms.

Lymphedema can cause numbness, tingling, pain, and cellulitis (a skin infection) in the affected area. If untreated, this condition can lead to serious health problems.

Patients undergoing breast cancer treatment are at risk for developing lymphedema in the arm and hand on the same side as the affected breast.

Between 20% and 30% of patients who have breast cancer surgery and radiation will experience lymphedema. Axillary (underarm) lymph node removal, radiation, and scar tissue are aspects of breast cancer treatment that can lead to lymphedema.

Arm exercises, including strength training, can reduce lymphedema. Light weightlifting keeps the lymph fluid moving through the body and also helps the body reabsorb the extra fluid.

This article will review arm exercises that can help reduce lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

Preparing for Arm Lymphedema Exercises

Prepare for Arm Lymphedema Exercises

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Be sure to discuss your exercise plans with your healthcare provider before you start. You may also be referred to a physical therapist who specializes in lymphedema. If you have recently had surgery, wait until your surgical drains and sutures are out before trying these exercises.

If you have lymphedema, always wear your compression sleeve on the affected arm while exercising. Stop exercising if your arm begins to hurt, swell, or turn red.

Dress in loose, comfortable clothing. Warm your affected arm and hand before starting by taking a warm shower or bath—this may help your muscles relax.

These movements help prevent swelling by moving lymph fluid back into your body’s circulation. Perform these exercises daily for best results.

Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A set of one-pound free weights
  • Your compression sleeve
  • A small flexible ball
  • A hard chair to sit on
  • An area big enough to lay down on
  • Optional: A pair of walking poles: fitness, nordic, or exerstriding poles

Ball Squeeze—Seated Exercise

Ball Squeeze Exercise

Verywell / Pam Stephan

Use a flexible ball that is a bit larger than your palm. Your exercise ball should not be heavy and should offer some resistance to your grip.

  1. Sit or stand with good posture—keep your back and neck straight and your shoulders relaxed. Grasp your exercise ball lightly between your palm and fingers. Extend your arm in front of you, holding your arm higher than your heart.
  2. While keeping your arm elevated, squeeze the ball with your fingers as tightly as you can. Hold the squeeze for about three seconds, then release.
  3. Repeat the ball squeeze exercise five to seven times.

Elbow Flexion—Seated Exercise

Elbow Flexion Exercise

Verywell / Pam Stephan

You can do the elbow flexion exercise with both arms. Use a one-pound free weight in each hand during this exercise.

  1. Sit or stand with good posture—keep your back and neck straight and your shoulders relaxed. Hold a one-pound free weight in each hand with your palm up. Rest your hands on your lap.
  2. Slowly bend your elbows and lift both hands toward your chest. When your hands are halfway up, stop lifting and hold the position for about six seconds.
  3. Now slowly lower your hands back down to your lap. Rest a bit.
  4. Repeat this exercise 10 times, always moving gently.

Elbow Extension—Floor Exercise

Elbow Extension

Verywell / Pam Stephan

You can do the elbow extension exercise with both arms.

Lie down on your back, keeping your back and neck in a straight line. To help keep your lower back flat, bend your knees. Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Use a one-pound free weight in each hand during this exercise. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart.

  1. Hold a one-pound free weight in each hand with your palms facing in toward each other. Raise both arms straight up above your body.
  2. Slowly bend your elbows and lower both hands toward your chest. When your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle (see image above), stop moving and hold the position for about six seconds.
  3. Now slowly raise your hands back up to position 1. Rest a bit.
  4. Repeat this exercise 10 times, always moving gently.

Shoulder Horizontal Adduction

Shoulder Horizontal Adduction

Verywell / Pam Stephan

You can do the shoulder horizontal adduction with both arms.

Lie down on your back, with your knees bent. Keep your back and neck in a straight line. Your feet should be flat on the floor, with your feet and knees shoulder-width apart. Use a one-pound free weight in each hand during this exercise.

  1. Extend your arms away from your body, resting them on the floor. Hold a one-pound free weight in each hand with your palms facing the ceiling.
  2. Without bending your elbows, slowly raise both arms straight up above your body until you can bring your palms together. Hold this position for about six seconds.
  3. Now slowly lower your arms back up to position 2. Rest a bit.
  4. Repeat this exercise six times, always moving gently.

Shoulder Flexion—Standing Exercise

Shoulder Flexion

Verywell / Pam Stephan

You can do the shoulder flexion exercise with both arms.

  1. Stand with good posture, arms at your sides. Hold a one-pound free weight in each hand, palms toward your body.
  2. Slowly raise both arms, using a gentle controlled motion. When your arms are almost directly overhead, pause and hold this position for six seconds.
  3. Now slowly lower your arms—don’t swing, but use control—until your hands are back beside your body. Rest.
  4. Repeat the shoulder flexion 10 times.

Shoulder Abduction—Standing Exercise

Shoulder Abduction

Verywell / Pam Stephan

You can do the shoulder abduction exercise with both arms.

  1. Stand with good posture, arms at your sides. Hold a one-pound free weight in each hand, palms facing forward.
  2. Slowly raise both arms out to your sides, using a gentle controlled motion. When your arms are not quite overhead, pause and hold this position for six seconds.
  3. Now slowly lower your arms—don’t drop your arms, but use a controlled motion—until your hands are back beside your body. Rest.
  4. Repeat the shoulder abduction 10 times.

Pole Walking—Standing Exercise

Pole Walking

Verywell / Pam Stephan

Use a set of fitness walking poles that have a hand strap at the top. The poles should remain behind your stride and always point diagonally backward as you walk. Keep your shoulders relaxed and hold the poles near your body.

  1. Step forward with your right foot, and swing your left arm forward, up to waist height. Your left pole hits the ground just behind your right foot.
  2. Keep your torso upright, don’t lean forward as you walk.
  3. Let your right arm straighten out behind you, forming a line that ends at the tip of your right pole. Roll your left foot from heel to toe as you walk, pushing off with your toe.
  4. Alternate feet and poles while maintaining good posture as you pole walk.

Summary

Breast cancer surgery can damage the lymph system, causing lymphedema (swelling) in the arm or hand on the side of the affected breast. There are some ways to reduce lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

Performing daily arm exercises can help the lymph fluid reabsorb back into the body’s circulation. The swelling in your arm and hand should begin to go down, and you will feel better with less pain as well. Often, body image and quality of life are also enhanced. Talk to your healthcare provider before starting lymphedema exercises.

A Word From Verywell

Previously, multiple axillary dissections (the removal of many lymph nodes from the underarm area), were common as part of breast cancer surgery. Thanks to new surgical practices, fewer lymph nodes are being removed during breast cancer surgery.

Today, a less-invasive procedure called a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) is frequently being done. Since fewer lymph nodes are removed during the SLNB, lymphedema after this procedure is less common and less severe. In fact, women who have an SLNB are three to four times less likely to get lymphedema compared to those who have an axillary dissection.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best way to reduce lymphedema swelling in the arm?

    It's best to have professional lymphedema therapy with a lymphedema specialist. There are also things you can do to help the process. Lymphedema swelling in the arm can be reduced by maintaining a healthy weight, performing gentle arm exercises, wearing a compression sleeve, preventing injury or infection to the arm, and telling your healthcare provider if symptoms develop or worsen.

  • What does lymphedema in the arm feel like?

    If you have arm lymphedema, you may experience a feeling of fullness, numbness, tingling, heaviness, and pain in the affected extremity. If left untreated, lymphedema can increase the risk of skin and blood infections.

  • Can you prevent arm lymphedema after breast cancer surgery?

    Although you can’t prevent arm lymphedema, you can reduce the seriousness of it.

    The following habits can help lower your risk of arm lymphedema:

    • Maintain a healthy weight
    • Exercise
    • Don't have blood draws in the affected arm/hand
    • Use a compression garment
    • Get regular checkups, and report any changes in your arm/hand
  • How long after breast cancer can you get lymphedema?

    Lymphedema usually occurs within three years of breast surgery, but it can develop many years after breast cancer treatment.

Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. What is lymphedema?

  2. Breastcancer.org. How lymphedema happens.

  3. Breastcancer.org. Lymphedema and exercise.

  4. American Cancer Society. Exercises after breast cancer surgery.

  5. Susan G Komen. Lymphedema.

  6. American Cancer Society. For people at risk of lymphedema.

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