What’s massage got to do with the lymphatic system?
By Jennifer Plourde, RMT
Jenn is a registered massage therapist with a clinical focus in lymphatic massage. She has completed advanced training in manual lymphatic drainage in the Vodder method. She strives to help clients find ways to manage their chronic edema with manual lymphatic drainage, exercise, compression and education.
What is manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)?
MLD is a very light massage therapy technique. In many massage techniques, the therapist presses very deeply into the skin to affect the muscles underneath - sometimes using their fists or elbows to dig deep! In MLD, the therapist uses only the palm of their hand on the surface of the clients skin to make light circles with the skin. No lotion or oil is used in this technique. The object of MLD is to encourage the flow of lymphatic fluid in the body.
What is lymphatic fluid?
The lymphatic system is a complementary system to the cardiovascular system. The heart pumps blood and it goes out to the body to deliver oxygen. Oxygen is delivered to the cells all over the body and then the blood returns in veins back to the heart. At the point where oxygen leaves the blood, a lot of other fluid leaks out into the surrounding area. We call this area the interstitial space - the place between things in the body. Everyone has some water in the space between things in the body all the time. For most people the lymphatic system picks up this fluid and brings it back to a point just above the collarbone where it is dumped back into the cardiovascular system and goes back out to the body as blood. When fluid is in the cardiovascular system, we call it blood, when it’s in the lymphatic system we call it lymphatic fluid (or lymph). It is all one fluid - you are one big ocean divided into many rivers!
Why would I want to use MLD to encourage the flow of lymphatic fluid?
For most people, the lymphatic system is working just fine and it manages to move the whole volume of lymph against gravity and without a pump back to the heart to become part of the blood again. However, if there is a problem with the lymphatic system a person can get a backlog of fluid - swelling. Some swellings are no problem, like when you sprain an ankle or get stung by a bee - this swelling is part of the body’s response to injury and illnesses. If you have a lot of swelling for a long period of time this can cause problems.
I like to think of the lymphatic system as a highway, and swelling as the cars. If there’s a bit more traffic than usual (like after an ankle sprain), most lymphatic highways can handle a few more cars without too much trouble. The swelling in an ankle sprain starts to decrease after a day or two. If, however, one or two lanes on a highway are closed a traffic jam of cars might form even with regular traffic. Sometimes during surgeries for cancer treatment, lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels are removed - causing damage to the lymphatic highway. In this case, the traffic jam may become quite significant and develop into a chronic swelling condition called lymphedema. This is one of the main reasons people come to see me for MLD - to help manage large chronic swelling in the body.
Our bodies are just like us - if there’s construction and a lane is closed on a road I usually use to get home, I still go down it even though I know that there’s going to be a traffic jam waiting for me. Do I choose a new route? Not usually - usually I turn right onto my regular path. The lymphatic system is the same way - despite there being a lot of traffic there the body continues to send fluid in a particular path toward the heart. There are other pathways (just like there are other roads that could get me home) but they tend to be underutilized. With the light touch of MLD we may be able to encourage the body to use these other pathways to help manage the excess swelling.
MLD is not used alone to manage chronic swelling - I also use compression and exercise to help clients decrease the size of their affected limb.
Are there other uses for MLD besides chronic swelling following a surgery?
Yes! There are many other conditions that involve a buildup of lymphatic fluid that may be helped with MLD. Chronic (non infectious) sinusitis is one I treat frequently to help clear some congestion from the sinus area. MLD may help decrease pain in injuries that involve swelling - sprains, tendonitis and bruising, for example. Swelling after other types of surgeries like knee replacements may also be decreased with the use of MLD. Some clients even prefer the light touch of MLD to heavier massage work and come for their relaxation and wellness massages.