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MANUAL LYMPH DRAINAGE- a therapy for the 21st Century


As we go about our daily business we may from time to time consider our digestion; how lively or tired we are feeling; or wonder why our shoulders feel stiff and consider if that work-out in the gym the previous evening really did us any good. What we don’t ask ourselves is “how is my lymphatic system coping today?” And yet without a good performance from our lymphatics our body will be running well below par causing tiredness aching muscles bloating poor digestion irritability poor immunity breathlessness chronic fatigue – the list is endless.

The lymphatic system is closely associated with the circulatory system and is found throughout the body. Its primary function is to drain lymph from the cells and tissue and carry it back to the main venous circulation. The term lymph comes from the Latin ‘lympha’ which means water. Lymph which consists of water, electrolytes, white blood cells including antibodies, and large protein molecules including toxins, viruses, bacteria, and foreign particles flows very slowly within the body aided by muscular movement and breathing. Treatment that can encourage lymph flow helping in the clearance of toxins from the body and strengthen the immune system is called Manual Lymph Drainage.

No, this has nothing to do with drains taps or plumbing and it is sometimes necessary to explain that to clients considering this therapy. To the contrary, MLD is a very gentle, very slow and relaxing body treatment and once experienced all misconceptions quickly vanish.

Manual Lymph Drainage in various guises has been around a long time. The ancient Greeks were aware of a system carrying what we now call lymph within the body in 300BC and over the years since then various parts of the jigsaw have been put together until Alexander Winiwarter, a Belgian surgeon, introduced a series of manual lymphatic drainage movements in hospitals for draining lymphatic oedemas around the late 1800’s.

Since then Emil and Estrid Vodder developed a technique based on Winiwarter’s work during the 1930’s; John and Judith Casley-Smith pioneered their own system independently in Australia called CPT – Complex Physical Therapy in 1980’s, and in 1990’s Bruno Chikly a French doctor identified the specific rhythm of lymphatic flow. New technology in the USA has produced the Light Beam Generator (LBG) which improves the benefits of MLD by separating unhealthy randomly bonded proteins which cause blockages, by ionising them with electrons.

There are four specific lymph drainage movements which are very different to those of Swedish massage in that the massage is slow with repetitive light and rhythmical movements, at approximately one stroke per second. The therapist’s hands move the skin of the client with a gentle “on/off” pressure phase to each stroke, taking into account the direction of flow of the lymph under the hands. This type of massage stimulates the lymphatic vessels to contract in a more organised way.

water1The function of the lymphatic system is two fold. Firstly it is the internal cleansing system for the whole body – clearing away all of the solid waste materials from the cells and also any which enter the body via various routes. Once back within the main circulation these are dealt with by the organs of elimination. Secondly it is the medium through which the Immune System works. Lymph nodes are found along the lymph vessels. These are small specialised structures where white cells enter the lymph circulation and these specific white cells of which there are differing types identify and destroy foreign material.

So the whole scenario of poor lymph flow, blockages along the vessels and around the cells gives rise to sluggishness, fatigue, body aches, and poor health and if there is no improvement over a long period of time chronic disease can take over.

An MLD treatment will always start at the neck where the 2 main lymphatic ducts, the Thoracic Duct and the Right Lymphatic Duct, empty into the venous circulation via the Subclavian veins. This emptying of lymph into the veins causes a slight drop in pressure and creates a space for the lymph further back along the ducts to flow into. All other sections of the body follow in sequence so that no congestion is moved without it having somewhere to move to.

The Manual Lymph Drainage routine has a profound effect on the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, the former being involved in our get-up-and-go and the latter in our rest and sleep. In a healthy individual these two are balanced but in a majority of people the sympathetic system predominates. MLD has a deep calming and relaxing effect with its continuous slow rhythm allowing the client to relax fully, become calmer, but also to feel energised at the end of the session. Muscular hypertension is under the control of the unconscious mind and seated in the autonomic centres of the brain and spinal column. MLD can influence this through the autonomic system. Pain can also be reduced by the ‘gate’ effect where pleasurable signals from the gentle touch over ride the pain signals.

General benefits of Manual Lymph Drainage include

  • Improvement in general health with fewer colds and of shorter duration
  • Increased vitality & energy
  • Feeling centred with clearer thinking
  • Clearer skin and improvement of scar tissue

Routine treatment can help with weight loss, fluid retention and swellings due to sprains and fractures, and cellulite control when changes in diet and lifestyles are also implemented.

It is an extremely useful treatment to be used as an adjunct to Physiotherapy due to its healing abilities of the tissues concerned where improvements can be seen almost immediately. The venous circulation is improved to the problem areas and waste materials are cleared away in less time than normal.

Cosmetic surgeons are now working with MLD practitioners in improving the healing speed and scarring of their clients when performing such surgery as Liposuction.

waterfallLymphatic drainage and immune enhancement therapy in conjunction with phytotherapy is the best treatment for acute toxic congestion along with a compromised immune system again lifestyle changes are also needed. As with all therapies there are contraindications which must be adhered to when this type of treatment would not benefit the client and could have an adverse affect on them.

Many chronic conditions can be treated with success using Manual Lymph Drainage including swollen legs due to pregnancy, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Chronic Bronchitis, Asthma, Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Sinusitis, Migraines, Stress, Digestive problems, as part of an Candida Albicans control program, Hormone imbalance, and a host of others.

Lymphoedema both primary and secondary can be reduced with Manual Lymph Drainage but specialist knowledge of the condition is required and the therapist will work under the supervision of the client’s consultant.

Training in MLD is available to massage therapists and healthcare practitioners. Previous training in massage is not a prerequisite as the movements taught are so different to those of massage. Level of training will determine which types of conditions the therapist can treat.

Nina Pearson

Practitioner Surrey/South London area

January 2004 Connections Journal Issue No. 44 Scotland