The lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system. Instead of circulating blood, it circulates lymph, a colourless fluid containing white blood cells that bathes the tissues and drains through the lymphatic system into the bloodstream. Think of it like one of the "care takers" of our bodies. Lymph fluid could also contain a collection of toxins, bacteria, viruses, proteins, and by-products of metabolic waste from internal body tissues, which travels through the lymphatic system via a series of lymph vessels.
Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have a pump. It relies on physical movement (exercise) and physical manipulation (targeted lymphatic drainage) to circulate. The lymph system does have lymph nodes, which help to filter the lymph (but not pump it) and produce new lymphocytes (new "care takers").
Lymph doesn't always drain properly on its own. Sometimes lymph nodes become "congested" and/or swollen, affecting the flow of lymph in its vicinity. On the face and neck specifically, this could lead to: clogged pores, acne, slowed healing, dull skin, dehydrated skin, and puffy skin.
Specific health conditions can also interrupt the normal flow of lymph, causing lymph fluid to build up in a particular area of the body, often in the arms or legs, where it can cause swelling. This condition is called lymphoedema. People can develop lymphoedema as a result of infections, injury, surgery, cancer treatments that involve the removal of lymph nodes, and any condition that damages the lymphatic system.
Lymphatic drainage massage is often used to manually move waste fluids away from the damaged area. This happens by encouraging the stimulation of the lymphatic system to accelerate the absorption and transport the lymph fluid along. A decrease in these metabolic wastes aids a reduction in swelling, fatigue and weakness, therefore improving recovery. This type of massage uses a gentle pressure, rather that deep tissue, to reduce lymphoedema. The direction of the techniques used is towards various nodes and glands located within the body as this is where the waste products are removed from.
For post surgery recovery lymphatic massage usually forms part of a treatment program called decongestive lymphatic therapy (DLT). DLT for lymphoedema also includes compression garments, exercise and skin care.
Lymphatic Drainage Benefits
People may benefit from lymphatic drainage to treat a wide array of disorders, from oedema (swelling) to wrinkles. The following is a short list of problems that can benefit from lymphatic drainage:
· Oedema, which may be the result of injury, surgery, muscle sprain and menstrual problems.
· Skin disorders, such as acne, rosacea, eczema and seborrhoea.
· Skin health, reducing puffiness and fine lines, scarring, improving skin elasticity and skin radiance.
· Rheumatology disorders, like arthritis and osteoporosis.
· Neurologic problems such as migraines and vertigo.
· Metabolic problems, including fatigue, sleep disorders, chronic pain and stress.
· Gastrointestinal issues, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), coeliac and Crohn’s disease.
Lymphatic drainage massage is not recommended for people with the following conditions:
· Congestive heart failure
· History of blood clots or stroke
· Current infections
· Liver problems
· Kidney problems
· Some circulation problems
If a person has any medical condition, it is vital that they talk to a doctor or a health professional before trying a lymphatic drainage massage.
Lymphatic Drainage Techniques
People can receive lymphatic massages from trained professionals, or they can learn basic drainage techniques to use at home. However, it is best to speak to a doctor before either trying this at home or going to a professional.
People can perform most of these exercises either standing, sitting, or lying down, as long as they are comfortable. Keep the following tips in mind during a lymphatic massage:
· These massage movements should affect only the skin, so use gentle pressure and do not press hard enough to feel the muscles.
· Keep the hands relaxed.
· Do not massage swollen or infected areas.
· Do not massage areas of the body that have undergone surgery or treatment for cancer.
· Drink extra fluids, ideally 2 to 4 glasses of water, after each massage to help flush the body.
How to Prepare for Lymphatic Drainage
When performing any kind of lymphatic drainage, you have to open up nodes lower down (since lymph follows gravity) before you can properly drain lymph above. The following methods will stimulate the lymphatic system and prepare the lymph nodes to bring in more fluid before a lymphatic massage.
1. Lymphatic breathing:
Deep breathing acts like a pump that helps move fluid through the vessels and lymph nodes. See my previous blog on ‘Deep Breathing’ or for a basic technique follow the steps below:
a. Place both hands on the stomach.
b. Inhale through the nose, expanding the stomach and keeping the shoulders still.
c. Slowly exhale through the mouth.
d. Rest between breaths.
2. Prepare the front of the neck:
Place the index and middle fingers of each hand on either front side of the neck, slightly above the collarbone.
Stretch the skin by gently sliding the fingers inward toward the middle of the collarbone.
3. Prepare the side of the neck:
Place the palm of each hand on either side of the neck below the ears.
Slowly move both hands down and back.
4. Prepare the back of the neck:
Place the palms of the hands on the back of the neck near the hairline.
Gently slide the hands together down the neck toward the spine.
5. Prepare under the arms:
Prepare the lymph nodes under the arms to help them accept lymph fluid from other areas of the body. Do not perform this movement on areas that doctors have treated for cancer. Follow these steps:
a. Cup the palm under the armpit.
b. Gently pump the palm upward and toward the body.
c. Repeat on the other arm.
6. Prepare behind the knees:
Place both hands behind the knee, so the fingers point toward each other.
Pump the back of the knee by gently pressing the hands into the back of the knee and rolling them upward.
Repeat on the other knee.
Your body is now ready for lymphatic massage.
Face and Neck Massage Techniques
When it comes to the face and neck, we must open up the lymph nodes along the neck and collarbone first before the lymph in the face can properly drain. Everything connects to lymph nodes around the ears and then flushes down the neck. This is best done in the evening since this practice is grounding and relaxing.
1. Start by washing your hands!
2. Apply a facial oil of your choice to lubricate the skin. Remember that you are not massaging the muscles, you're just massaging the skin and encouraging the lymph to move.
3. Move your fingers gently down the sides of the neck below the ears towards the collarbone.
4. With your middle and ring finger, place them on either side of each ear and gently tug downwards and along neck.
5. With your fingertips, lightly pump the sides of your nose moving towards the ears.
6. With your fingertips again, gently pump the inner eye area moving below the eyes and towards your ears, and then do the same along the eyebrows in the same direction.
7. Lightly pump your temples and move towards your ears.
8. Smooth and gently glide along the forehead towards the ears.
9. With both your thumbs under your chin, facing each other, and your index fingers resting on your chin, gently glide along the jaw line towards the ears.
10. Repeat steps 4 and then 3.
If you cause any pinkness or redness in the skin while massaging, you're using too much pressure and engaging the circulatory system, not the lymphatic system. Your skin should not look flushed in any way after you do a facial lymphatic massage.
Upper Body Massage Techniques
Use the following techniques to help drain lymph fluid from the chest, shoulder, and upper arm.
To massage the chest:
Place the palm flat on the opposite side of the chest, slightly above the breast.
Move the hand up the chest and over the collarbone.
Continue up the neck until the skin covering the chest feels tight, then release.
To massage the shoulder:
Rest the arm on a table or armrest.
Place the other hand on the shoulder of the resting arm.
Move the hand over the back of the shoulder and toward the neck.
To massage the upper arm:
Rest the arm on a table or armrest.
Place the middle two fingers of the other hand on the inside of the upper arm below the shoulder.
Gently slide the fingers toward the outside of the upper arm.
Wrap the hand around the outside of the upper arm.
Gently move the hand back toward the inside of the arm.
To massage the full arm:
Begin at the shoulder.
Use the palm to stretch the skin upward.
Move the hand down to the upper arm and stretch the skin up toward the shoulder.
Continue down the arm always moving the skin upward.
Stop at the wrist.
To massage the fingers:
Start at the base of the swollen finger close to the palm.
Use the index finger and thumb to stretch the skin on the finger toward the hand.
Continue this motion over the entire finger.
Remember to direct fluid toward the hand.
Lower Body Massage Techniques
Start the massage at the top of the leg and work down toward the foot. Use a pillow or a stool for support.
To massage the upper leg:
Start at the top of the leg.
Put one hand on the inside of the opposite thigh near the groin and place the other hand on the buttock.
Gently stretch the skin by moving the hand on the inside of the thigh toward the outside of the thigh and up.
Move the hands further down the leg and repeat the stretching movement above.
Stop above the knee.
To massage the lower leg:
Start right below the knee.
Place one hand on the shin and the other hand on the back of the calf.
Gently stretch the skin upward.
Continue this motion, working down toward the ankle and the top of the foot.
Always use upward strokes.
To massage the toes:
Use the thumb and index finger to guide fluid from the toes toward the foot.
It is vital to always end the massage by drinking extra fluids.
How do you know if it is working?
People who use lymphatic drainage massages may notice that their swelling reduces. At the very least, swelling should not worsen. Those who use lymphatic massages to treat fibromyalgia might experience less stiffness and pain and also notice improvements in their overall health status.
People who have lymphoedema should continue using compression socks or sleeves to prevent swelling.
People can also boost their lymphatic system function and help remove more waste from the body using the following methods:
· drinking plenty of water
· staying physically active
· eating vegetables and fruits
· limiting the intake of processed foods
To Sum Up…
The Lymphatic system plays an important role in the overall immunity of your body. It has a vital role of flushing out the by-products of metabolic waste as well as ‘used’ white blood cells needed to fight infections. A healthy, active lymphatic system uses the natural movements of smooth muscle tissue to transport and remove toxins and cellular waste from the body. However, some health conditions resulting in surgery or injury, can cause lymph fluid to build up causing congestion in the lymph flow leading to swelling.
Lymphatic drainage massage is a form of gentle massage that encourages the movement of lymph fluids around the body. It can reduce swelling considerably and improve circulation throughout the lymphatic system. Many have found benefit in alleviating skin conditions such as puffiness and fine lines, but also for acne and eczema. It may have a part to play in easing arthritic swelling and pain, relieving the symptoms of migraines and helping you get a good night sleep.
Due to the nature of this massage it is not suitable for people with certain health conditions. If you think that you could benefit from a lymphatic drainage massage please speak with a physical therapist or your health professional before embarking on this type of massage.