I first came across the lymph system when I studying Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology in 2006. Quite frankly, it drove me to despair. The more I read about it, the more complicated it seemed to get! That’s probably what’s driven me to wanting to understand more about it, and to eventually learn a massage technique called “manual lymphatic drainage”.
Here’s an attempt to describe the lymph system and the benefit of manual lymphatic drainage as simply as I can:
All of our body systems are equally important, but whilst most people know about the cardiovascular system, the nervous, immune or the digestive system, there is one that is very little known and seems to be going a little bit in and out of fashion.
The lymph system is an amazingly complex system, that quietly works away in the background. It is intricately linked with every other body system: Along with the circulatory system, it forms part of the cardiovascular system. You may be aware that we are about 60% watery fluid (this varies depending on age, gender, height to weight ratio, and so on) – what’s blood in the blood vessels, is very similar to the interstitial fluid that bathes cells outside blood vessels, and to the lymph inside the lymph vessels. It’s where the fluid is, and also some key components, what determines the name of this constantly circulated and recycled fluid. In the case of lymph, there is a high number of different types of lymphocytes –natural killer cells, T-cells and B-cells (lymphocytes are also found in blood, where they are part of the “white blood cells”). The cleansing and filtering of lymph is mainly done in the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes will also produce more lymphocytes when viruses, bacteria and foreign invaders are detected – this is when lymph nodes (also called lymph glands) swell up. In this way, the lymph system is the first line of defense of the body.
The lymph system can be found everywhere, starting with the tiniest vessels starting directly under the skin, to larger lymph vessels and ducts in the body, as well as comprising organs like the thymus gland, tonsils, and spleen. There are even lymph vessels that help drain the brain –the brain needs clearing and cleansing just as the rest of our body, and the network of lymph vessels in the meninges has been termed “glymphatic” system.
As we’ve said above, its main task is to cleanse the body of, so-called “toxins” (often just bi-products of cell life), and proteins which are too big to be picked up by the venous system. This means that, when it works efficiently, the tissues which are bathed in interstitial fluid get an optimum of nutrients and oxygen (the “good stuff”) and what’s not needed, gets transported away. It is also crucial for the balance of body fluids.
If this system is not working properly or gets blocked, this means also that nutrients and oxygen brought by the blood vessels does not get to the cells quite so easily, there is a murky concoction of stuff that should not be there in the first place. Imagine you are swimming or rowing to an island in the middle of a lake filled with rubbish, debris and algae– that will take a little while longer than making your way through nice, clear, oxygenated water, apart from being a whole lot more unpleasant.
You can imagine what effect this can have on the body in terms of lack of energy and fatigue. Certain types of headaches and migraines, sinus problems, general muscles soreness, fibromyalgia and ME, skin problems and susceptibility to colds, and many more conditions and symptoms are being attributed to a clogged up lymph system. This is not surprising, as it is nowadays thought that inflammation is the cause of many conditions. With the lymph system playing a crucial role in combating inflammation, it makes sense to look after it.
Swelling in pregnancy, and after injury or surgery, and lymphoedema can be attributed to sluggishness, overload, or in the case of lymphoedema, to an impaired lymph system.
There are many different ways to support the lymphatic system. The most important one is movement – immobility is the worst for the lymph system, because the lymph vessels mainly rely on muscle action to squeeze them and thus pump lymph fluid.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing helps as well, by creating what is called “Venturi effect”, where changes in intra-thoracic pressure help draw lymph through the vessels. Rebounding is an excellent way to get the lymph going, especially the phase where you are suspended in the air! You will be glad to hear that sleep is important too for the cleansing of the brain and growth of “synaptic pruning”. In terms of massage, manual lymph drainage is geared solely to accelerate the “lymph pump” on all parts of the body.
Manual Lymphatic Drainage: The gentle giant of therapies
Less is more when it comes to the gentlest of therapies, manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). Yes, the name is not terribly enticing and people often think it’s forceful, invasive or somehow related to plumbing. The latter is not so far fetched, but MLD is so gentle, that one client has likened it to “butterfly kisses” which is much nicer.
The therapist uses gentle, rhythmical strokes, which are applied directly on dry skin (ie no oils are used), to increase the speed and flow of lymph fluid. This is done by opening up the initial lymphatic vessels which are under the skin and constitute 60% of lymphatic vessels. Once the fluid is in there, it pushes into the bigger vessels and enters a one-way, valve protected system. Too much pressure closes the initial lymph vessels, hence why it has to be very gentle. The strokes are quite specific and in the direction of lymph nodes, which all have their own areas that the lymph drains to. That is why a therapist needs to work within so-called “watersheds” to efficiently push the lymph in the right direction.
This gentle therapy is also very relaxing and soothing, and the effects on the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest system”) have been well researched. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite to the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks in when we are stressed and triggers the well-known “Fight or flight response”. No wonder many clients report they sleep much better after an MLD treatment!
MLD can be useful for people suffering from a range of conditions, as mentioned above (this is not exhaustive – nearly any condition that is caused or aggravated by inflammation, congestion or sluggishness is bound to benefit). It is also the method of choice after surgery to help with optimal healing, minimal scarring and diminished bruising. Because of its gentleness, it can be applied from day 1 after surgery or injury. It even is a beauty treatment because of its positive effects on skin appearance!
A specific form of MLD is used for lymphoedema treatment. Lymphoedema occurs when the lymph system cannot transport away the fluid in some part of the body, mostly limbs, but the torso or face can also be affected. This can be because by blockage, eg when lymph nodes have been removed, or a tumour is present, ie as a secondary effect of cancer or cancer treatment, or it can be caused of insufficient or diseased lymph vessels, ie primary lymphoedema. This treatment is called Decongestive Lymphatic Therapy (DLT) and involves the deviation of lymph flow, measuring and bandaging, as well as skin care and advice on self-treatment. It has improved the lives of innumerable people all over the world, and GPs in the UK are supposed to refer patients suffering from lymphoedema to specialised lymphoedema services. There are often gaps in the system, however, starting from the recognition and diagnosis of lymphoedema to commencement and continuity of treatment, and many people are seeking help and information privately.
The Dr Vodder technique of Manual Lymphatic Drainage has been about for 80 years, and has a dedicated School in Austria which was founded in the 70s. Nowadays, this method is taught all over the world. In Germany, the health benefits of this therapy are widely recognised for a range of conditions, and health insurances refund treatments. We have got some way to go in the UK, but there is more and more support by the medical profession. The international network of people, from therapists applying this technique to medics and medical researchers exploring the lymphatic system and effective ways of looking after the lymph system, provides incredible support and an impressive knowledge base.
Prevention and Aftercare
MLD can be used as a preventative tool or for the alleviation of conditions caused by inflammatory processes and stress. Treatment frequency depends on the severity of a condition, when a trauma occurred and what the patient wants to achieve. This can range from daily treatments for one week (for severe lymphoedema, this will then get spaced out), 2 or 3 treatments a week for 10 to 14 days after surgery, weekly treatments for fibromyalgia or ME (for one or two months), to monthly treatments for maintenance. Sometimes people come once a year or every couple of years for a series of treatments to detox. Discuss your requirements with your therapist , and they will advise you on a recommended course of treatments. By the way, MLD is also good to optimally prepare tissues before surgery!
If you want to know more about how to get and keep healthy by looking after your lymph system, come to the next self-care workshop on::
Sunday 13 January 2019, 3pm to 5pm. Cost: £35 (includes a handout). Call us on 07749 224 262 or book via this link
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lymphocyte More about lymphocytes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEP0PYEWcwU (Video on the lymphatic system)
https://vodderschool.com/emil_vodder_life_work_article (Article on Emil Vodders life and work with great background information. Written by Hildegard Wittlinger, one of the founders of the Vodder School in Austria and in her 80s now, still teaching!)
https://draxe.com/lymphatic-system/ (Easy to read article about how the lymphatic system works, and what damage to it does. It says here that it does not connect to the central nervous system, but we now know that it does through glymhatics)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_water: Wikipedia on the Content of Water in the Body. By the way, about two thirds of the water is contain within cells and a third outside cells, mind-boggling!
https://www.fastcompany.com/3059634/your-most-productive-self/your-brain-has-a-delete-button-heres-how-to-use-it: A different take on glial cells, and another reason why sleep matters!
http://www.wellbeingjournal.com/rebounding-good-for-the-lymph-system/: Canadian lymphologist Dave Scrivens explains the many health benefits of rebounding.
http://salutariscentre.com/index.php/client-resources/lymphatic-system : Anatomy of the lymph system and pictures of Lymph watersheds