What conditions can be helped with lymph drainage?

The lymphatic system is a wide-reaching and multi-faceted apparatus. Accordingly, a damaged, underperforming, or otherwise struggling immune system


Edema/Fluid retention

Whether it is sudden, localized edema (swollen feet from pregnancy), or chronic fluid retention (like in lymphedema,) lymph drainage helps maximize the movement of fluid so your body can “catch up” to the lymphatic load it hasn’t been able to process. When people are holding on to excess fluid, they may notice that they weigh less after a couple days because the weight of that liquid is gone. It is important to emphasize that if this is a chronic condition, the results will not be permanent. After a few days, lymph flow will slow to normal and fluid will start to pool again. However, the great advantage to using MLD is that with an appropriate treatment program, draining the lymph allows weeping wounds from lymphedema to heal and the affected limb to shrink down to a normal size. That size can then be maintained with a compression garment, and return treatments can be conducted as needed as you notice fluid beginning to build up again. The critical difference here is that instead of a large, swollen, painful limb being compressed by the garment prescribed by your doctor, the compression wear will help you maintain a more moveable, lighter, healthier limb.

Examples:

Surgery/Injury

Swelling is a natural part of the healing process, and to a certain extent, it is a helpful response where the sends nourishing lymph to tissues that need to be rebuilt. However, swelling can go too far and cause incredible pain and discomfort. Sometimes, a swollen area may even not receive fresh lymph at the rate that it should because the pressure level inside the lymph vessels is too consistent across the area and so the lymph has no low-pressure area to easily flow toward.

Helping lymph movement after an injury or surgery ensures that fresh fluid gets to the area and doesn’t stagnate. Increasing the speed of lymph movement also decreases swelling, which in turn decreases discomfort from the wound. This can help speed and improve the healing process as undrained lymph fluid that is caught in the newly formed scar tissue can cause problems like scar lymphedema, but properly drained tissue will lie flat and knit together more smoothly.

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Fibromyalgia & Autoimmune Conditions

This is a bit of a controversial category, and honestly there isn't a ton of research out on the impact of lymph drainage on fibromyalgia and auto-immune conditions quite yet. Small-scale studies do suggest that this therapy can help manage some of the symptoms of various conditions that result in widespread pain, tactile sensitivity, chronic swelling (or swelling flare-ups) and more.


For autoimmune conditions, one theory is that some of what your immune system may mistakenly be reacting to is normal waste products that can hang around in your tissue waiting to be cleared out. Since the lymphatic system clears waste products from these interstitial spaces, manual lymph drainage therapy may give the immune system less to mistakenly react to, leading to fewer flare-ups and symptoms. Alternatively, it may simply be that autoimmune conditions tend to cause damage to the lymphatic system, so supporting that system mitigates the symptoms that result from that damage. Case studies consistently report that clients find relief from their symptoms with regular lymph drainage. And, as a remarkably low-risk therapy, it is certainly worth a try if you are dealing with a condition in this category.


For fibromyalgia, both traditional massage as well as lymph drainage appear to be effective in managing pain and sensitivity, though lymph drainage proves to be more effective than more traditional types of massage when rating symptom-management. This may have something to do with reducing inflammation in the fascia of the body as these layers of connective tissue contribute significantly to pain sensations when irritated, but there is much we still do not understand about fibromyalgia, so it's hard to know exactly why lymph drainage is effective. All we know is that it consistently helps people dealing with this condition to feel less pain, sleep better, and soothes an over-firing nervous system.


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Resources

  1. Ezzo J, Manheimer E, McNeely ML, Howell DM, Weiss R, Johansson KI, Bao T, Bily L, Tuppo CM, Williams AF, Karadibak D. Manual lymphatic drainage for lymphedema following breast cancer treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 May 21;(5):CD003475. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003475.pub2. PMID: 25994425; PMCID: PMC4966288.

  2. Masson, I. F., de Oliveira, B. D., Machado, A. F., Farcic, T. S., Júnior, I. E., & Baldan, C. S. (2014). Manual lymphatic drainage and therapeutic ultrasound in liposuction and lipoabdominoplasty post-operative period. Indian journal of plastic surgery : official publication of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India, 47(1), 70–76.

  3. Asplund, R. (2003). Manual lymph drainage therapy using light massage for fibromyalgia sufferers: a pilot study. Journal of Orthopaedic Nursing, 7(4), 192-196.

  4. Härén, Clas Backman, Mikael Wiberg, K. (2000). Effect of manual lymph drainage as described by Vodder on oedema of the hand after fracture of the distal radius: a prospective clinical study. Scandinavian journal of plastic and reconstructive surgery and hand surgery, 34(4), 367-372.

  5. Bertelli, D. F., de Oliveira, P., Gimenes, A. S., & Moreno, M. A. (2013). Postural drainage and manual lymphatic drainage for lower limb edema in women with morbid obesity after bariatric surgery: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 92(8), 697-703.

  6. Schroeder, B., Doig, J., & Premkumar, K. (2014). The effects of massage therapy on multiple sclerosis patients’ quality of life and leg function. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2014.

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