So, what is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is a network within the body that helps drain toxins and unwanted materials, transporting lymph which contains white-blood vessels that help us fight infections. This lymph is transported through lymphatic vessels (similar to veins).
It’s just one of those intricate and amazing processes that goes on in our bodies daily: moving the proper amount of fluid throughout the body, helping it resist infection, and removing waste from muscle tissues.
But several health conditions and even genetics can lead to disruptions in the flow of fluid between the body’s various lymph nodes, causing blockages and build-ups along the regular internal routes. This results in something called lymphedema.
What is Lymphedema?
The potentially serious condition is called lymphedema and can cause a number of symptoms: pain and swelling, sometimes fatigue or burning sensations, even leaking or bruising. If untreated, it can possibly lead to infection, disfigurement, permanent skin damage, even loss of motion in fingers and toes.
Surgery, injury, or certain parasites can all play a role in the appearance of lymphedema, but one of the more common causes is cancer treatments, including radiation or chemotherapy. Some cancer-related surgeries, such as mastectomies, may require removal of at least one lymph node, a procedure which can significantly alter the flow of fluid through the lymphatic pathways.
Different steps can cut down or control the amount of swelling and improve circulation, such as sleeves, compression bandages or certain types of clothing. Patients with chronic lymphedema may also benefit from visiting a health provider regularly for draining with a special fluid pump.
But of course, an incredibly effective way to improve circulation and get the system flowing again is with lymphatic massage.
Lymphedema Massage Therapy is different than spa-style massages, which are designed for comfort, or therapeutic style massages, which are intended to relax and stimulate muscles.
Instead, a lymphedema massage therapy requires a light, gentle touch to help disperse and drain fluid and reduce blockages in the lymph node system. This procedure improves and stimulates the lymph vessels and pathways and sometimes reroutes them through or around blocked areas making it easier to drain into the rest of the body as they’re supposed to.
A traditional massage, especially something faster-paced or involving stronger pressure, can actually increase fluid build-up and worsen someone’s symptoms.
Lymphatic massages, also called Manual Lymph Drainage, are actually recommended to be given only by someone with training and certification in the proper style and technique, which could include medical professionals, specialists called Lymphedema Therapists, physical therapists or massage therapists.
The Lymphedema Massage Therapy Process
The lymphedema massage process generally involves the therapist using slow movements and fingertip pressure to manually move fluid to the heart, and then small strokes to move it to the arms and then into the shoulders. The goal is minimal pressure and keeping everything moving in the same direction.
In some circumstances, patients may be asked to give themselves limited lymphatic massages. For instance, in the days immediately after surgery, before they can visit a provider or specialist, the patient may be taught some basic techniques to allow them to move their lymph fluids manually in order to make sure they don’t stagnate in their body.
Patients living in rural areas or with limited insurance may not have regular access to a lymphatic specialist, so they or their family/caregivers are sometimes also taught basic exercises to keep fluid moving and manually drained until they are able or authorized to be treated by a certified therapist.
Either a self-massage or a massage from a trained professional can involve the use of gravity as well – all the patient may need to do is to lie down and hold their arm or arms up in the air for a certain amount of time. Sometimes, holding one’s arm up can aid in draining, even in a non-massage setting.
Getting more help
If you or someone you know might benefit from lymphedema massage therapy, or you suffer from lymphedema and would like to find out more click here.
It’s important to remember, that if you are affected by lymphedema, you are not alone.
According to the NHS, around 200,000 people in the UK have some form of lymphedema, a trend that’s likely to continue as long as cancer rates continue to affect millions. Breast cancer, brain cancer or neck tissue cancer also have higher odds of causing lymphedema than other types of cancers.
Because lymphedema can be caused by injury or trauma as well, former military personnel are also at a higher risk of showing symptoms.
Whatever the trigger, the key to avoiding lymphedema is to keep the fluid circulating. Not doing so allows fluid to build up, which can cause all sorts of physical discomfort, everything from not being able to wear a watch or bracelet to sometimes dangerous conditions such as sepsis.
Your provider, community health center or a local home health agency may have information about other resources, including any certified lymphedema therapists in your area, or you can get in touch with ourselves so that we can put you in touch with one of our trained therapists, totally free of charge. Along with being able to provide lymphatic massages, these trained individuals can also provide other details about the chronic disease, local support groups or even recommended clothing.
The National Lymphedema Network also offers information about resources such as providers and therapists familiar with the disease, along with access to accredited training programs for people wanting to become therapists.
We hope you found this article helpful and interesting, and if you’d like to find out more about some of the other therapies our many therapists are trained in, do get in touch.
This article was written in collaboration with Above and Beyond HC, a Home Health Care and Hospice Care Service that also provide certified lymphedema therapists. The image was sourced from Learn Massage's video here.