Lymphedema

Lymphedema may be seen as congestion in a body’s circulatory system, usually an area-specific stagnation. Without an obvious pump, the lymphatic system relies on muscle contraction, movement, and the body’s natural cycle of contraction/expansion.  Disease, trauma, congenital malformations, sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to Lymphedema; T’ai Chi can help rectify and restore balance to the system. The rhythmic opening and closing of the  shoulder and hip joints combines with the slow loading and unloading of weight in the legs for optimum lymph flow enhancement. Diaphragmatic breathing is encouraged as the body relaxes, also contributing to increased lymph flow.

Ideal for home program Lymphedema exercises, Professor Cheng Man-Ching recommended Tan T’ien mobilization daily. This was taught by placing a fist on lower abdomen below navel; place palm over fist, rotate 60 X in clockwise fashion. Let the palm aim the pressure through the rounded fist to follow the clock; up the right, down the left. When teaching this for increased lymph flow one might open the hands and increase coverage to include full abdomen, up the right side to liver & low ribs, across to stomach and spleen, follow descending colon down the left, then a spiral across to include iliac and inquinal lymph node groups. The hydraulic pressure translates into movement through cysterna chyli and upward through thoracic ducts.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage helps the body to re-route lymph flow around blockages and past stagnation. The light touch learned in T’ai Chi interactive training coaxes the system to reach through its previous limits, overlaying the body’s (sometimes overwhelmed) natural direction.

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LymphedemaBlog.com is an excellent resource. While not specific to T’ai Chi applications, this is valuable practical information for dealing with Lymphedema, its consequences and treatment options.

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TAIJIQUAN AND ITS EFFECT ON THE LYMPHATIC SYSTEM

Dr. John P. Painter, Ph.D., N.D.

copyright 1996 IAM Co., Life Sciences Institute; reprinted with permission

[Note – Taijiquan is the Pinyin transliteration; T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the Wade Giles.  pk]

Our blood is eighty per cent (80%) water. Under pressure from the heart, blood (as it is being pumped through arteries) moves into arterioles which narrow down to capillaries. Some of the water is allowed to permeate the walls of capillaries where it flows between the spaces of cells and into narrow channels called lymph capillaries, these capillaries swell into larger tubes called lymphatic ducts.

This water based fluid is now called lymphatic fluid. Lymphatic fluid contains white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are made in the lymph nodes and spleen and are your body’s internal defense against invading bacteria, virus and infection. When the body detects foreign substances among its cells, lymphocytes move in, surround the area and begin to produce antibodies designed to digest and destroy the invader. When the internal combat zone involves the lymphatic ducts, the lymph nodes will swell and become painful. This is because the lymph, flowing past the cells of infected tissue, carries the harmful bacteria to the lymph nodes where white blood cells attack and attempt to destroy the bacteria. Lymph fluid has no pump, as blood in the veins do, to push it through the lymphatic system. Instead, lymph is kept moving by pressure, partially by the pressure of the liquid seeping out of the capillaries. The lymph movement is also helped along by movements of the body which cause muscles to squeeze the pliable lymph vessels, forcing the lymphatic fluid through them. The vessels are arranged with a series of one way valves that prevent the fluid from flowing backward and so each muscular action serves to propel the lymphatic fluid back to the heart by way of eventually emptying into the thoracic duct and finally into the inferior vena cava (the large vein leading to the heart.) At the end of its journey the lymphatic fluid again empties into the blood supply.

It should be readily apparent that because the lymphatic fluid moves rather slowly that a sedentary life style is not conducive to health preservation. We need a steady supply of lymphatic fluid pumped through the system on a regular basis. If the body is stressed and activity is minimal then there are fewer lymphocytes available to ward off infection. In such cases the invading bacteria may be stronger than the body’s defense mechanisms, resulting in an infection.

Two things are needed to practice preventative health care beneficial to the lymphatic system. The first is adequate rest of both the mind and the body coupled with a good diet. The second is more active circulation of the lymphatic fluid through the entire system. As mentioned before, muscle contraction serves this purpose. Unfortunately much of the movement we make on a daily basis does not strongly activate the lymphatic pumping action. This is because many of the major lymph nodes are located under the arm pit and in the crease of the upper thigh. Most of our walking and/or running does not adequately compress these areas to promote maximum circulation through lymphatic ducts. This is where arts like Taijiquan and Baguazhang are very helpful.

Taijiquan and its sister art of Baquazhang can be extremely beneficial to the lymphatic system because maximum circulation is stimulated in the lymphatic fluid due to the joints of the under arm and thigh being squeezed and released in a rhythmic manner during the practice of the forms. Such action occurs during the opening and closing actions found in almost all Taijiquan forms.

For Taijiquan, greater lymphatic flow is realized if the right arm is squeezed in conjunction with a closing of the left thigh, as found in most Taijiquan movements. Experiments at the Life Science Institute have shown that Taijiquan practiced properly with the correct application of closing and opening the areas of the thigh, underarm and leg will create a pumping action to the lymph nodes that can increase lymph circulation, help relieve swelling and aid a more rapid return of the fluid back to the heart … Stimulation of circulation occurs during the opening and closing actions of the limbs and torso found in all Taijiquan forms.

Increased lymphatic fluid flow is realized if the right arm is squeezed in conjunction with a closing of the left thigh as found in most Taijiquan movements. Experiments have shown that Taijiquan practiced properly with the correct application of closing and opening the areas of the thigh and underarm to create a pumping action of the lymph nodes can increase pressure in the lymph vessels resulting in improved lymph circulation.

Taijiquan and Baguazhang can be very important to the lymphatic circulation system when attention is paid to correct posture and rhythmic movement. Daily practice improves emotional well being, does not stress the physical body and creates a steady flow of lymphatic fluid bathing all of the cells and tissues of our body. This will serve to increase lymphocytes scavenging the body for bacteria, thus preventing infections before they become well established. On a personal note I fully believe this is the main reason that the author of this report has been without a cold or flu or serious infection since before 1966.

Healing Hands, Chinese Healing Arts     John P. Painter, Ph.D, N.D.     Tao Ch’i Publishing, 1977

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