When most of us think of circulation, we attribute it to blood flow, weaving through our arteries and veins. Circulation also applies in the process of lymph moving through our lymph nodes and vessels. As blood flows through capillaries, water, proteins, waste, and other materials can escape as they are not completely reabsorbed. Our blood cardiovascular system could not function properly without our lymphatic system, as it helps collect the escaped fluid between tissues and helps return it back to the blood. We don’t think too much about the lymphatic system as it is not wholly defined by definitive arteries and veins, rather it is comprised of lymph nodes that contain disease-fighting immune cells as well as organs like the spleen and thymus that help fight off infections. The lymph nodes are connected by lymphatic vessels that are similar to veins with thin walls and contain valve structures. The lymph fluid is propelled in one direction back to the heart through contractions of both smooth muscles and skeletal muscles. It will re-enter the blood circulation at the site of the veins. When problems arise in this fluid collection system, this can cause a type of swelling referred to as lymphedema.
Lymphedema has several underlying causes, but two common ones are due to the removal of lymph nodes or an underlying infection. Many of the removal of lymph nodes is from cancer surgeries. In breast cancer patients, lymph nodes are removed usually to help determine if the cancer has spread. While this can be beneficial for the surgery and lead to patient peace of mind in knowing where the cancer has spread, it can also remove some lymph nodes that were important for removal of interstitial fluids.
If the lymph nodes are not present and unable to aid in removal and drainage of fluid, this can lead to excess of fluid around the tissues and cause swelling and edema. While the increase in blood flow from exercise can lead to excess fluid leakage, certain forms of exercise can help alleviate swelling. For an exercise treatment plan, aerobic training, flexibility training, and strength training all can improve lymphedema.[5-7] One such exercise that combines all three of these aspects is yoga.
Background on Yoga
Yoga can help with improving the lymphedema, as it can help with the muscular aspect of isometric muscular contractions to help improve the circulation and limb elevation. In patients suffering from lymphedema of the legs, their condition can change the way they walk as well as lead to joint deformities. Yoga can help improve these problems, as yoga helps reduce the inactivity and aid in muscular strengthening.[10,11] For patients suffering from upper limb lymphedema due to breast cancer treatment, yoga has helped improve posture as well as strength. Yoga has mental benefits too. Breast-cancer survivors noted that yoga helped not only improve their physical well-being but also their mental and social well-being. Yoga helps in multiple ways that include the physical, emotional, and mental states.
Yoga Is Helpful for Lymph Flow
In the course of a yoga flow, many of the muscle contractions involved in the practice are either static or dynamic poses. Static poses utilize isometric muscle contractions, where a pose is held for a period of time and the muscle generates force without changing length. The dynamic poses of yoga involve the extension and flexion of muscles in and out of static poses. In an exercise study examining lymph clearance rate, participants had higher clearance rate of lymph from legs during isometric contractions of extended legs than the clearance rate of flexed legs.
Limb elevation is traditionally recommended to help improve lymphatic drainage and reduce lymph load received, but usually only at night due to concerns about limiting function and exercise. Yoga can combine both limb elevation and muscular contractions to benefit from both options.
Here are several possible poses to include in your practice if you are suffering from leg swelling.
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