Lymphedema & Dragon Boating

Lymphedema refers to the swelling that occurs most often in your arms or legs.  The swelling occurs when a blockage in your lymphatic system prevents the lymph fluids in your arm or leg from draining adequately.  As the fluid accumulates, the swelling continues.  No cure for lymphedema exists but lymphedema can be controlled.  Controlling lymphedema involves diligent care of your affected limb.

In February 1996, Dr. Donald McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist in British Columbia, was dissatisfied with the common belief that women who had undergone breast cancer treatments shouldn't do upper body exercise because it would cause lymphedema and tissue damage.  He felt this was counterintuitive, and through the Public Health Agency of Canada (the Canadian equivalent of NIH), he got a grant to conduct a study.  McKenzie wanted to explore repetitive motion exercises, and felt that dragon boating would work well because a team consists of 20 women, doing exactly the same stroke exactly the same number of times.  Within a short time, he was able to demonstrate that not only did this form of exercise not cause lymphedema, it could actually decrease the amount of lymphedema or even prevent it, reducing scarring and rebuild muscle mass.  Overall, he found that it produced a physically measureable positive effect.  

Dragon boat racing has become a woman-centered, community-based leisure pursuit focused on life after medical treatment for breast cancer.  Although dragon boat racing has been identified anecdotally by many women with breast cancer as a key factor in their survivorship, scant research has explored the broad health benefits of the pursuite or how it might positively contribute to survivorship.

Those affected by lymphedema are advised to speak to a physical therapist who is trained in this area before engaging in any vigorous physical activity, including a sport such as dragon boating.