The Lymph System
The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.
Most people are familiar with the body’s vessel system that carries blood to and from the tissues, but few understand there is another equally vital system of vessels that removes cell wastes, proteins, excess fluid, viruses, and bacteria. The lymph system picks up fluids and waste products from the spaces between the cells and then filters and cleans them.
Like the roots of a tree, the lymph system starts as tiny vessels–only a single-cell wide–that eventually branch into larger and larger tubes that carry these fluids back to the bloodstream. This network of delicate vessels and lymph nodes is the primary structure of the immune system. The lymph nodes act as checkpoints along the pathways of the vessels. They filter the fluid (called lymph) and serve as the home for lymphocytes–little Pac Man-like cells that attack and destroy foreign bacteria and viruses and even abnormal cells, like cancer cells.
When the lymph system works well, we feel healthy and have a strong defense against illness. When it’s sluggish or blocked–say after surgery or an injury–we can have swelling, feel tired, and be more susceptible to colds and infections.
Benefits of manual lymphatic drainage massage
A customized form of bodywork, lymphatic massage may help the lymph system do its job better. By understanding the anatomy and function of this delicate system, your massage therapist can assist your body in clearing sluggish tissues of waste and swelling.
Though lymph vessels are found throughout the body, most of them–about 70 percent–are located just below the skin. These fragile vessels work to pick up fluids between the cell spaces when gentle pressure is applied to them from increased fluid build-up, muscle contractions, or the pressure of a therapist’s hands. By using very light pressures in a rhythmic, circular motion, a massage therapist can stimulate the lymph system to work more efficiently and help it move the lymph fluids back to the heart.
Furthermore, by freeing vessel pathways, lymphatic massage can help retrain the lymph system to work better for more long-term health benefits.
Massage therapists versed in lymphatic drainage therapy, an advanced form of lymphatic massage, can identify the rhythm, direction, and quality of the lymphatic flow and remap drainage pathways.
Who Should Get It?
Lymph massage can benefit just about everyone. If you’re feeling tired and low on energy, or if you’ve been sick and feeling like your body is fighting to get back on track, lymph massage would likely serve you well.
In addition, athletes, surgical patients, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue sufferers, as well as those wanting a fresh look may want to consider lymphatic massage. Here’s why.
After a sports injury or surgery, lymph vessels can become overwhelmed with the demand placed on them. When tissues are swollen, deep tissue techniques may actually cause damage to the lymph vessels and surrounding structures. Lymphatic massage is often the treatment of choice because it helps the body remove proteins and waste products from the affected area and reduce the swelling. This helps reduce pressure on cells and allows them to reproduce faster to heal the body.
Surgical procedures involving lymph node removal–such as breast cancer surgery–can cause limbs to swell. Severe limb swelling needs the attention of a medical team, but in milder cases, lymphatic massage alone may be enough to prevent or even treat the swelling. It’s important that your doctor be involved in your care. Let your doctor know you’d like to see a massage therapist and make sure you have medical approval.
Lymph massage can also be part of a care program for fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Because it’s so gentle, it is well tolerated by these patients, who are often experiencing sore trigger points throughout the body. And by encouraging lymph flow and removing waste products, this gentle form of bodywork can help restore immune function and improve vitality.
Estheticians are trained in a very specific form of lymphatic massage. When you get a facial, your esthetician will gently massage your face to help improve lymph flow. When lymph is moving freely in the face, you’ll have clearer, healthier skin without a buildup of toxins and fluids.
So, if you’re feeling a bit sluggish, experiencing mild to moderate swelling, recovering from a sports injury, or interested in optimizing your lymph system for stronger immunity, ask your massage therapist about lymphatic massage. It can have a powerful impact on your body’s ability to heal.
Manual lymphatic drainage
Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a type of gentle massage which is intended to encourage the natural drainage of the lymph, which carries waste products away from the tissues back toward the heart. The lymph system depends on intrinsic contractions of the smooth muscle cells in the walls of lymph vessels (peristalsis) and the movement of skeletal muscles to propel lymph through the vessels to lymph nodes and then beyond the lymph nodes to the lymph ducts which return lymph to the cardiovascular system. Manual lymph drainage uses a specific amount of pressure (less than 9 ounces per square inch or about 4 kPa) and rhythmic circular movements to stimulate lymph flow.
Manual lymphatic drainage was pioneered by Danish Drs. Emil Vodder and Estrid Vodder in the 1930s for the treatment of chronic sinusitis and other immune disorders. While working on the French Riviera treating patients with chronic colds, the Vodder’s noticed these patients had swollen lymph nodes. In the 1930s, it was considered taboo to tamper with the lymphatic system due to the medical profession’s poor understanding of this system. The Vodder’s were not deterred by this and, in 1932, began to study the lymph system, developing light, rhythmic hand movements to promote lymph movement. In 1936, they introduced this technique in Paris, France, and after World War II, they returned to Copenhagen to teach other practitioners to use this therapy.
MLD is now recognized as a primary tool in lymphedema management. Therapists can today receive certification through special classes conducted by various organizations specializing in MLD, or through a complete lymphedema treatment certification course. Scientific studies show mixed results regarding the efficacy of the method in treating lymphedema and further studies are needed. A 2009 meta-analysis of studies in the area of sports medicine and rehabilitation showed the best evidence of effectiveness for Manual lymphatic drainage treatment to “enzyme serum levels associated with acute skeletal muscle cell damage as well as reduction of edema [swelling] around broken bones.”  A 2013 systematic review of manual lymphatic drainage with regard to breast cancer-related lymphedema found no clear support for the effectiveness of the intervention in either preventing limb edema in at-risk women or treating women for the condition.
*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, or prescription of any kind. The decision to use, or not to use, any information is the sole responsibility of the reader. These statements are not expressions of legal opinion relative to the scope of practice, medical diagnosis, or medical advice, nor do they represent an endorsement of any product, company, or specific massage therapy technique, modality, or approach. All trademarks, registered trademarks, brand names, registered brand names, logos, and company logos referenced in this post are the property of their owners.