Manual lymph drainage deals with the lymphatic system of the body. The lymphatic system is very closely tied to the circulatory system. The main goal of manual lymph drainage, or “lymphatic drainage” is to improve upon or restore a drainage and transport system that is impaired or slowed down.
A brief anatomy and physiology lesson is needed in order to understand lymphatic drainage massage. Once you get a brief picture of the lymphatic system and what it does in the body, even if you don’t memorize everything described on this page, you will be able to begin to see the effectiveness of manual lymph drainage therapy.
The lymphatic system is like a watershed. It starts very small in one cell thick vessels just under the skin. These tiny vessels run parallel to the blood vessels. The lymph system has no pump to move the lymph fluid, like the heart pumps the blood.
Manual lymph drainage can increase the rate of lymph drainage in the body by 20 times. Lymphatic massage is a specialized massage to increase this lymph drainage. It is not a normal massage which mainly massages muscles. The purpose is different.
The tiny lymph capillaries also have no valves in them. Lymphatic fluid is flowing all over. Therefore, a therapist with the goal of moving lymph in a desired direction can do so in the most beneficial direction. The initial lymph process gathers up the fluid from the interstitial space (gaps between blood vessels and cells), which then builds up in the tiny lymph capillaries.
The capillaries dump the lymph fluid into what is called “pre-collectors”, and then into “collectors”. Pre-collectors are halfway between the tiny capillaries and the collectors. These pre-collectors have some minor one-way valves that move the fluid forward somewhat. The collectors have more distinct one-way valves.
The spaces between the valves of the collectors are called lymphangions. The lymph fluid is moved along by contraction of these (lymphangion ) sections. The body has collectors near the surface of the skin and also deep collectors.
Manual lymph drainage treatment of the surface vessels provides a pumping effect, or suction-like effect, which empties the deep ones, also. The largest lymph vessels are called lymph trunks. They exit into the blood circulation near the heart.
There are around 600-700 lymph nodes in the body. The nodes lie between the collectors and the trunks of the lymphatic system. Each trunk empties the lymph nodes in its region of the body.
The lymph nodes are metabolic waste filters, clearing the body of foreign invaders, poisons and pathogens. The lymph nodes continually produce white blood cells and defend the body against invasion. When you have an invasion, like a cold virus, activity speeds up and a battle goes on in the lymph system, especially the nodes. The white blood cells (called lymphocytes) seek and destroy the viruses or bacteria that have invaded.
Most of the time you can’t feel your lymph nodes. If you can feel a lymph node, it has become enlarged and you can suspect an infection, swelling or a problem of some kind. Many times when you are sick you can feel the swollen nodes in your neck.
If you have a cold or infection you will want to wait until it is over before you receive manual lymph drainage treatment, since you want the harmful invaders to stay in the lymph nodes until they are killed by the white blood cells there.
Each lymphatic watershed drains a quadrant of the body. Every node receives lymph from a specific part of the body like a tributary to a river. The left ankle drains to the lymph nodes in the lower left abdomen, for instance. Smaller to larger drainage occurs like mountain water runs down small creeks into bigger creeks until it reaches a big river. These quadrants, however, are not inseparable.
If you have surgical lymph node removal, the lymph fluid that should drain to these missing lymph nodes can be moved by manual lymph drainage to a different adjoining tributary where lymph nodes are still intact. (Be advised that manual lymph drainage can spread metastasized cancer.) Physicians will sometimes teach patients to perform manual lymph drainage daily on themselves after lymph nodes are removed.
Our bodies are composed of three spaces that are fluid compartments:
1. Intracellular space: water in cells which account for 66% of total body water.
2. Intravascular space: blood vessels which account for 9% of total body water.
3. Interstitial space: In between and everywhere else. This accounts for 25% of total body water. Lymph flows through this interstitial space, the space in-between all the cells in our body.
The Lymphatic system drains this interstitial space. This fluid is filtered from the blood into this space, cleaned and filtered back into the blood, constantly keeping a balance of body fluids. If more fluid is filtered into the space than is drained away you, edema occurs in that area.
The purpose of the blood is to bring nutrients to the tissues, and then waste products are taken up and carried away. “Hemodynamics” describes the two opposing pressures that drain water from blood and cells. Those two opposing pressures are osmosis and diffusion.
Plasma proteins travel in the blood to all parts of the body. Some protein molecules are constantly leaving the capillary tissues crossing through the membrane wall into the interstitial space through “diffusion”. Plasma proteins are vehicles that carry important nutritional substances to the tissues and cells of the body.
The lymph carries nearly all the plasma proteins necessary for building cells, such as vitamins and other nutrients, and hormones. It also carries waste products and dead cells. Larger molecules cannot re-enter the blood, therefore transportation by the lymph is vital for health and life.
The protein molecules are big and cannot reenter back into the blood after they deliver their nutrients, because diffusion is a one way street. Therefore these protein need to be returned to the blood by some other means. The most important aspect of the lymphatic system is to carry plasma proteins in this fluid back to the bloodstream.
The lymphatic fluid takes these protein molecules, along with the water that drains into the interstitial space through the lymphatic system, filters it and then back to the bloodstream by the heart. Stimulating lymph movement with manual lymph drainage in one area can increase the drainage in another. A therapist can push and pull the lymph through the body in a vacuum-like, chain reaction.
The nucleus of a lymphocyte (white blood cell) carries DNA which contains the entire blueprint for all our bodily tissues. A healthy lymph system promotes healthy tissue and bodily functions. It also guards against infections.
Through the DNA (blueprint) lymphocytes can tell which cells are “us” and which cells are not part of our body, because those “foreign” cells do not have our DNA. That is how lymphocytes determine which cells to attack as foreign invaders.
Lymph fluid also carries cell building materials to all of our cell tissues. So, good lymph drainage can greatly accelerate the process of building new cells as needed. The lymph system cleans and builds tissues through drainage, but it is also a protection and defense system, producing antibodies to kill viruses and infections. Good lymph drainage promotes recovery from a hard day’s work. For an athlete it can dramatically enhance recovery from a workout or competition.
An average of 35 billion lymphocytes circulate continuously in our blood and lymph every day. This increases up to as much as 562 billion when we are stressed in some way.
Lymph drainage massage is not your typical deep tissue massage. Swedish, or deep tissue massage, has little or no effect on lymph drainage. The lymph system works just below the skin and deep tissue massage gets deep into the muscle tissue, too deep and forceful to enhance lymph drainage. Therefore, manual lymph drainage is more of a specific medical, wellness type of massage for a specific purpose.
There are usually no side effects to lymph drainage massage and it is painless. However, if you have any medical conditions, it is wise to consult with your physician first. Anyone with a history of heart problems, blood disorders, thyroid or kidney problems, or contagious skin diseases should not receive this type of therapy. Manual lymph drainage can affect blood sugars in diabetics. A diabetic should test blood sugars before during and after any massage.
If you have cancer, or are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, discuss with your doctor before you have manual lymph drainage massage. Use caution if you have rheumatoid arthritis, or have a fever.
A therapist must know the anatomy of the lymphatic system to give a massage. Knowing the watersheds and what areas and directions they drain is the most important information in manual lymph drainage therapy.
The terminus is where the lymph dumps back into the bloodstream near the heart. First the terminus is cleared, and then the manual lymph drainage massage will start at the nodes to be drained. Then one section at a time the massage fans out from there.
This movement creates a “suction” action in the lymphatic fluid. The massage entails very light pressure which is only skin deep. It is done in specific directions in a specific rhythm speed and sequence. Massage is done in a circular motion circling toward the nodes with more pressure on the first ½ of the circle and lighter resting pressure on the last ½ of the circle to where contact is barely maintained with the skin. These two phases of pressure and rest are done in a steady rhythm 5 to 7 times in one spot, then moved to the next.
Just about any time anything is wrong with your health the lymph system is affected in some way. If you aren’t feeling good and your immunity is low, speeding up a sluggish lymphatic system could help. When our immunity is low we are more susceptible to viruses or other contagion that’s going around. Manual lymph drainage can strengthen the immune system.
Normally four ounces per hour of lymph fluid is dumped into the thoracic duct going back to the heart. Manual lymph drainage can improve a sluggish system by 8 to 10 times, removing toxins at a more rapid rate. It can reduce scar tissue in victims of injuries, including burns, softening scars and making them more pliable. It keeps the environment around cells healthy and stimulates immune system function for healing of sports injuries, etc.
The University of Brussels did studies showing that manual lymph drainage decreased cellulite in the body improving and restoring healthy skin. Manual lymph drainage reduces lymph edema and eases inflammation. It can reduce headaches caused by fluid buildup. Further, as lymphatic drainage massage works on the sympathetic nervous system it reduces stress and stress hormones.
Depressed immunity and poor circulation in lymph can also have an effect on the appearance of your skin. As beauty is “skin deep”, it is also lymphatic deep. Poor lymphatic drainage is a cause of such skin problems as swelling, redness, puffiness, pimples, or dark bags under the eyes.
Manual lymph drainage cleanses the lymph fluid, flushing the lymphatic system allowing swelling in the mucus membranes to be reduced and many problems in the skin to be cleared up. Skin cells wear out and are constantly being replaced by young cells rich with nutrients that leave the blood and pass through the lymph system.
Stagnation of this water, just like stagnation of a pool of ground water that doesn’t move, soon becomes contaminated and full of wastes. The significance of the health of our cells provided by lymphatic drainage is dependent on the free flow of the fluid.
Lymphatic drainage massage is not a onetime treatment. Repeated applications in a short period of time are more effective. Then a break can be taken after those sessions, restarting another series of manual lymph drainage treatments later on.
Manual Lymph drainage massage helps restore balance to the body, allowing our own natural bodily systems and responses to take over, so the body can heal itself.
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