Manual Lymphatic Drainage: what it is and how can it help?
by Carlie Hickson, RMT
The lymphatic system is yet another part of the body that leaves me in awe. Our body is this incredibly intelligent organism that has a great capacity for health and healing, and the lymphatic system plays no small role in this endeavor. Moving, flowing, cleansing, draining; the lymphatic system is always working to keep our body’s fluid volume in check, transport nutrients, digestive proteins and fats to the body’s cells, detoxify and cleanse the spaces between our cells, and contributes to a clear mind and energetic body that keeps us functioning in everyday life. However, when the lymphatic system is not working as it should, fluid and other unwanted substances can build up in areas of the body and become congested. This can lead to a myriad of health issues. Sometimes the body needs that extra nudge to encourage it back into the state where it can heal and regenerate itself, and in some cases manual lymph drainage (MLD) can be just the thing!
What is the Lymphatic System?
The lymphatic system is the body’s second circulatory system. It supports and works alongside the cardiovascular system. But unlike the cardiovascular system that circulates blood, the lymphatic system transports excess fluid from the spaces between the body’s cells through a network of vessels and nodes. This fluid contains proteins, fats, cells, cellular waste products, viruses, bacteria, and other toxins or unwanted materials that may be present in the body. The lymph vessels then deliver this fluid (where it is now called lymph fluid) to the lymph nodes where it makes contact with the immune system. The lymph nodes can be described as biological filters as the immune cells in them remove damaging substances and render them harmless. After the lymph fluid is filtered, it is then returned to the cardiovascular system (the blood). Check out this great visual of how the lymphatic system works. Watch it! It’s really cool.
The movement of lymph fluid
Lymph flow is restricted by natural bottlenecks in your body. This is at the knee, ankle, armpit, elbow or groin: anywhere the body bends. When the lymph system is healthy, the fluid moves past these points easily. This natural process is assisted by breathing and movement of your muscles.
Lymph flow becomes further restricted by tissue injury where bruising or scarring is present, when the lymphatic pathways are blocked due to removal of lymph nodes, a lymphatic vessel is cut during a surgical procedure or trauma, or if a person is born with an abnormal lymphatic system. All of these instances can lead to a build-up of fluid causing swelling. When prolonged, swelling can compromise the health of tissue and cells can increase the risk for infection.
What is Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)?
So what is manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) anyway? And what does it have to do with the lymphatic system? An MLD treatment is unlike receiving a normal massage. The therapist uses gentle hand movements in a slow and rhythmic manner with very light pressure. The technique is primarily aimed at moving the skin which stimulates the delicate lymphatic pathways. MLD facilitates the natural flow of lymph fluid through the vessels and can reroute the lymph in areas where pathways may be blocked. This can help decrease swelling from various injuries or after surgery, enhance recovery of damaged tissues, decrease congestion, and facilitate or even reroute drainage where the flow of lymph fluid may be impeded. Along with these benefits, MLD has been shown to have other numerous powerful effects on the body such as improving microcirculation, supporting the body’s immune system, assisting the body’s detoxification process, and can have a powerful relaxing effect on the nervous system.
Combined Decongestive Therapy
Combined decongestive therapy (CDT) is used in cases of lymphedema or chronic swelling, and may be used as a complement to MLD treatment. A CDT treatment will involve MLD, the manual technique, followed by the application of bandaging which prevents swelling from returning to the affected area. Compression stockings can also be worn in place of bandaging to maintain the effects of the treatment. Conventional medicine recognizes CDT as an important treatment method for these conditions and is extremely important for the success of the MLD treatments when required.
What types of conditions can MLD and CDT be used for?
- Orthopedic conditions with swelling ( ex. sprains, strains, fractures, hematomas)
- Lymphedema — from surgery where lymph nodes have been removed
- Lymphedema from an abnormality in the lymphatic system
- Post-surgical swelling (orthopedic or plastic surgery)
- Rheumatic disease (Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis)
- Dermatological conditions (acne, eczema, psoriasis)
- Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
- Neurological disorders (stroke, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome)
- Varicose veins (venous insufficiency)
- Breast health (mastodynia, painful breasts, lactation disorders)
- Support during pregnancy (leg edema)
- Trauma related (acute whiplash injuries, burns, scars, keloid scars)
- Brain fog
- Digestive issues
- Sinus congestion
*There may be conditions that would benefit from MLD not included in this list. See the “more information” section below.
When you should NOT have an MLD treatment
MLD is NOT a suitable treatment if you have:
- Sudden onset of an infection
- If you are having an allergic reaction
- If you have a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis)
- An untreated malignant disease
- If a heart condition is the cause of your edema
Want more information? Do you have further questions?
Email Carlie at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some additional resources on the lymphatic system, MLD, and CDT
- Dr Vodder School International: https://www.vodderschool.com/resources/education_centre
- Canadian Lymphedema Framework: http://canadalymph.ca/
- BC Lymphedema Association: https://www.bclymph.org/