By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, August/Winter 2005.
As the cold and flu season approaches, it’s time to bolster the immune system and give it a coat of armor against the certain onslaught that awaits.
Maybe you already take a defensive stand this time of year with a more diligent use of vitamins and herbal supplements, heightened precautions with hand-washing, or an extra glass of orange juice or serving of broccoli. But have you ever considered a lymph massage to help your body stave off the blues of winter illness?
“At the start of the flu season, have one or two lymph massage sessions to really charge the immune system,” says Ramona Moody French, author of Milady’s Guide to Lymph Drainage Massage, and founder of the Desert Resorts School of Somatherapy in Palm Springs, Calif. “There’s a lot of scientific evidence for how effective it is,” she says, both in its ability to increase the production of white blood cells and to stimulate the immune system.
Lymph massage, also known in variations as Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) or Lymph Drainage Therapy (LDT), is a gentle, relaxing form of massage that helps the body’s lymphatic system get moving again while reinforcing immune function. To fully understand the benefits of lymph massage, let’s first take a quick look at how this lesser-known system works.
As a vital component of the body’s immune function, the lymphatic system is comprised of several organs (thymus, tonsils, spleen, adenoids), hundreds of lymph nodes, and a multitude of vessels that run throughout the body similar to our circulatory system of veins and arteries. These lymphatic vessels carry a clear fluid, known as lymph, that circulates around the body’s tissues, absorbing fluid, waste products, dead cells, bacteria, viruses, fats, and proteins from the tissue as it goes, while also giving passage to immune cells as they’re needed.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body — including most notably the neck, armpits, and groin — and have the job of filtering the lymph fluid and removing damaging elements they’ve picked up along the way, such as bacteria and cancer cells. When the lymph nodes detect these foreign elements in the fluid, they begin producing additional infection-fighting white blood cells, and become enlarged in the process, hence a swollen gland.
If the system gets overtaxed because of ill health, surgery, stress, or poor diet, it can get sluggish and not do its job as efficiently. As a major player in the body’s immune process, it makes sense that by waking up the lymphatic system you dramatically improve your chances for staying healthy.
A Massage That’s Barely There
With lymph massage, the system gets a wake-up call through delicate means. Lymph massage is extremely gentle and slow, not just as an aspect of its healing nature, but by necessity. “Most of the lymphatic vessels are just below the skin and are stimulated by .5 to 8 ounces of pressure per square inch,” French says. That light, slow pressure mimics the pulse and rhythm of the lymphatic system itself and gets the vessels to respond as they should. Each stroke slightly moves the skin in the direction of the lymphatic flow to encourage the drainage of fluid and waste.
The delicate nature of each stroke as it carefully glides across the skin can sometimes make it feel as if nothing is happening, especially for those who are used to deep bodywork. But it’s exactly that noninvasive quality of lymph massage that makes it work. “The results can be profound,” French says.
Depending what your complaints are, the focus of a lymph massage for general immune stimulation is typically on the upper body, including the face, neck, and arms. The massage always has fluid moving toward a healthy lymph node, and while most therapists don’t work directly on the breast, they do address the tissue surrounding the breast.
If your primary complaint is swelling, scar tissue, or inflammation, therapy should focus on the part of the body where that occurs. For anyone wanting to address issues of musculature, as well as lymph, French recommends 20–30 minutes of deep tissue massage, followed by 20–30 minutes of lymph massage.
After your lymph massage, it’s important to drink plenty of water as things get moving again. French says it’s possible you could feel some mild, flu-like symptoms, depending on how toxic your body is (i.e., what environmental pollutants you’ve been exposed to, what sort of diet you’ve been following, what types of medications you’re taking, and how much sugar or alcohol you consume). While most people come out of a typical lymph massage feeling nothing but relaxed, French says if you do feel a little off-kilter afterward, the best solution is to “drink plenty of water, watch your salt intake, and get up and move.” Movement, she says, creates a greater lymphatic response and will hurry the process along.
Today or Year-Round
During the often-stressful holidays and the viral barrage of the cold and flu season, French says it’s especially important to pay attention to your body. If you’re feeling tired or run-down, she recommends getting a lymph massage. It will help charge your batteries, so to speak, and prep the immune system for the road ahead.
French also advises her clients to consider a good lymphatic work over when the seasons change. Two to three sessions, preferably all in one week, but at least over a few week’s time, is what the body needs to recharge itself, she says.
On a year-round basis, lymph massage is a good treatment for edema (or swelling), any kind of inflammation (such as tendonitis), or a recent injury (like an ankle sprain), and is really helpful with sinus conditions and a general sense of congestion. “It also helps to reduce scar tissue and stimulate the circulation and production of white blood cells,” she says.
But this work might even have greater opportunities for those who want to explore them. “Lymph massage can get you moving on a deeper level,” French says. It’s not only relaxing, but very hypnotic, she explains. Mimicking the natural pulsation of the lymph system, lymph massage can create a sensation not unlike listening to the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waters. “It’s like feeling the waves flow over you,” she says. “Like being bathed in the ocean.”
When the Body Fights Back
When the lymphatic system is especially compromised, as in the presence of cancer or after it’s been disrupted by surgery, it can slow to a near negligible pace. This is when a swelling of the lymph passages occurs, known as lymphedema, creating a painful, potentially debilitating condition. One of the most common causes for lymphedema is undergoing a mastectomy, where breast tissue and/or lymph nodes under the arm are removed. Of the women having this operation, up to 15 percent are likely to get lymphedema. But it’s not just mastectomies where lymphedema is showing up.
According to the National Lymphedema Network, if lymph nodes are removed, there is always a risk of developing lymphedema, anywhere from hours after the surgery to 20 years later. Even when there’s been no surgery, lymphedema can come into play if there have been radiation treatments. Like surgery, radiation therapy creates scar tissue that stalls the normal flow of lymphatic fluids through the body.
Lymph massage has shown to be effective for lymphedema, especially when caught early. When significant scar tissue has started to form as a result of chronic swelling, the work can take a much longer time, but is still effective.
If you are a postsurgery patient, be mindful of the signs of lymphedema — tightness in the skin, a feeling of “fullness” in the affected area, and persistent swelling. It’s important to report these symptoms to your healthcare provider and even seek out a second opinion. Unlike the protocol in Europe, where it’s the third most prescribed health treatment, lymph massage, and lymphedema itself, are not always discussed between U.S. physicians and their patients. If you are at risk and your doctor doesn’t bring it up, it’s important you start the conversation.
In addition to lymphatic massage, combined approaches for lymphedema include the use of compression garments, bandaging, diet control, skin care, and condition-appropriate exercise. Many therapists like to send their lymphedema clients home with the knowledge of how to administer this massage for themselves. “For long-term problems like chronic edema or scar tissue, clients can learn to self-treat,” French says, allowing the work to keep going between sessions.
If you, or someone you know, is dealing with the debilitating effects of postsurgical lymphedema, lymph massage is something to be considered. Talk it over with your doctor, and see if your massage therapist can offer this work or refer you to a colleague.
Whether it be to alleviate the more serious effects of postsurgery lymphedema, or simply to give the lymphatic system a good kick start as flu season approaches, consider a lymph massage. Feel what it is to be “lighter,” to be “opened,” to be awash in the waves of healthy lymph, and have things moving again.