The lymphatic system transports lymph fluid, a mostly clear fluid consisting of white blood cells that help fight infection, water, waste products, fats and proteins. This fluid is drained from tissues and circulated throughout the body through lymph vessels and is filtered through the lymph nodes.
Lymphedema (LE) is the result of trauma to the lymphatic system or abnormal development of the lymphatic system. The symptoms can vary from individual to individual but include swelling of the affected limb(s), thickening of the skin, feeling of heaviness and tightness to the skin, fatigue, discomfort and sometimes pain. The advanced cases are sometimes frightening and disturbing to see. It should be your goal to never let your lymphedema reach that stage.
Lymphedema is incurable and can only be managed by 24/7 vigilance and knowledge.
Physical activity with lymphedema
The evidence on the effect of exercise for lymphoedema patients is limited; however, studies agree that exercise is helpful when it is gradually increased over time. There are some studies about people with lymphedema using exercise to help themselves and what has benefited them.
Regular exercise will help you to control your swelling and can also make you feel good as it increases your endorphins. It will help you to keep your joints flexible and keep the muscles well toned. It can also relieve pain and discomfort due to joint stiffness and lack of mobility.
A gradual, steady increase in regular exercise will ensure that your body works efficiently. It also helps to reduce tiredness, stress and anxiety, helps keep your bones and heart in good condition and helps keep weight within normal limits.
Wearing a compression sleeve or stocking when you exercise is important and will help to control the swelling more effectively because the firm support offered by the compression garment assists the muscles to pump more efficiently. However, it is not as necessary to wear garments when swimming, as the water provides the same sort of support as garments. Water also provides resistance to movement which makes the muscles work harder – so swimming/exercise in water is especially good for people with lymphoedema. Some people also choose to wear their garments in the water (especially during hot weather) – this will help to enhance the effects of the exercise.
Each person’s LE can vary – what triggers it, how much swelling is “normal” and when serious attention is needed. Although there is no scientifically proven lymphedema diet, it is important to eat a balanced and healthy diet. Excessive weight will add greater demands on the lymphatic system and make things worse. Doctors are encouraging their patients to find an activity they enjoy because they are more likely to keep it up. Water exercises are the most popular and that is where sailing comes in. If you are all day near a body of water you can exercise whenever you feel like it and that could help you with your lymphedema.
Lymphedema at sea
There are only a handful of people out there trying to cruise or live aboard the sailboat but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Skincare is a critical component of LE care. The first rule is to protect your skin from sunburn, which everyone should do anyway! Insect bites, cuts and scrapes while sailing can have more serious consequences because of the compromised lymphatics. Cellulitis, when bacteria infect the deep layers of skin and tissue beneath the skin, can be extremely serious. You should immediately clean any cut, scrape, or insect bite and cover it in an antibiotic ointment. And be aware mosquitos DO bite through compression stockings!
Washing your compression stockings is the whole other thing when you are on a boat so you need to have more pairs so you can change them daily because of the sweat. The other important thing is that you should elevate your legs as much as possible so take shorter trips and stop regularly.
If you have a pneumatic pump for lymphedema you will have to make sure you bring it with you. It can be your quiet time for reading but you should do it if it helps you. Nowadays, pumps can be smaller in size so you can fit it on a boat without any problems.
Preparing for the trip
Before the trip, you should take some extra time to prepare so you have everything you need. You should make sure your compression garments are up to date. This means that if your garments are almost six months old, it is time to make an appointment for a fitting for new ones. Garments lose their effectiveness around six months. Compression loss is due to wear and break down of materials in the fabric. It is good for you to schedule an appointment with your therapist for manual lymphatic drainage right before your trip. It feels good to get in optimal condition for upcoming stressful situations.
It is also good to make sure your antibiotics are current. Short trips or long you should take along a bottle of antibiotics just in case you develop cellulitis. Insect repellent is also a must-have if you are going sailing. One never knows when you may encounter biting bugs. Sunscreen is a must too. A sunburn can aggregate lymphedema.
Without a doubt, lymphedema makes cruising more challenging but it becomes more rewarding if you follow the rules and listen to your body.