Weight lifting helps lymphedema

Women who develop arm swelling following surgery for breast cancer -- a bothersome condition known as lymphedema -- derive significant benefits from participating in a slowly progressive weight lifting programme, a study shows.

This finding, the researchers say, runs contrary to "guidance from commonly accessed cancer-information Web sites, which suggests that the risk of lymphedema is decreased by avoiding lifting children, heavy bags, or other objects with the affected arm."

In the study, weight lifting did not lead to a significant increase in arm swelling and was associated with fewer lymphedema flare-ups and increased muscle strength, Dr Kathryn H. Schmitz from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, and colleagues report in The New England Journal of Medicine.

How the study was done
The study involved 141 breast cancer survivors with arm swelling. The women were randomly assigned to twice-weekly progressive weight lifting, guided by a trainer primarily at local YMCAs, or to a non-weight lifting "control" group.

Upper-body exercises included seated row, chest press, lateral or front raises, biceps curls, and triceps pushdowns.

Weight lifting, the researchers report, was not associated with any serious adverse events, did not make arm swelling worse, and had several benefits.

Weight lifting reduced the number and severity of arm and hand symptoms, increased muscular strength, and reduced the number of lymphedema flare-ups.

Dr Wendy Demark-Wahnefried from M. D. Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, who was not involved in the research, says this study "provides strong reassurance regarding the safety of appropriately supervised weight training in women with a history of breast cancer and lymphedema."

Weight lifting, she adds, "clearly has the potential to result in cost savings, not only by reducing direct healthcare costs, but also by potentially reducing the risk of disability and allowing women to return to work at full capacity, either within or outside the home." – (Reuters Health, August 2009)

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