Tai Chi for Lymphedema


Within one week 2 of my cancer survivors, both with lymph edema, were talking about the difficulty of managing their arm.   Both had gone through lymph edema training, been taught self manual lymphatic massage techniques to do at home, wore their sleeves religiously, were mindful of how much they used their arm and tried to keep it elevated at night time.  During the massage I mentioned that slow movements, similar to tai chi or qigong might be beneficial when their arm was elevated.  I demonstrated the technique to them, and explained that slow movement along with breath work, similar to Tai-Chi or Qigong, might help move lymph due to the contraction of the muscle action.  Both patients said to me, “why didn’t anyone teach us this, it is so easy and I can do it at home?”

Since I routinely see patients struggle with the diagnosis of lymph edema I wanted to get the correct answer for them.  That evening I researched Tai Chi and lymph edema and noticed immediately that Tai Chi was offered at several cancer centers.  That was encouraging, but no real evidence-based information on why it helps.  Finally I came across a web-site that talked about the benefits of swimming, Pilates and Tai-Chi.  Utilizing the questions to the expert page I emailed my question.  I am very grateful to a  Physical Therapist that specializes in lymph edema for her quick response and permission to post her comments.  I will continue to introduce Tai-Chi and other slow movement techniques as a possible way to help control lymph edema. 

This was the response from- Bonnie B. Lasinski, MA, PT, CI, CLT-LANA , Clinical Director Lymphedema Therapy Woodbury, New York 11797   (516) 364-2200

To recommend something as effective we need evidence that it is.  Sadly there is not much out there. We may have anecdotal evidence that things work for some patients but we can’t advise that interventions are effective without good evidence. I do recommend activities such as Tai-Chi to my patients, depending on their individual situation but always with the comment that may or may not find these activities effective for managing LE as each person are different.”

Water exercise for LE  One of my survivors routinely swam every morning to improve her lymphedema.  When she didn’t swim, she would immediately notice the difference in her arm. 

Pilates and LE– 

Exercise for Lymphedema Benefits Supported by Studies–  Thankfully the evidence is proving that with correct exercise training, patients with lymphedema can routine to their sports and hobbies.