The lymph system is a series of vessels that transport lymph fluid, a straw-colored liquid that carries proteins, white blood cells and other components of our immune system. The vessels are semipermeable so that the lymph fluid pulls in cells, toxins, fluids and microbes, which are transported to “filtering stations” such as lymph nodes and the tonsils. Eventually, the lymph fluid enters back into circulation via the thoracic duct in the chest.

Unlike blood, lymph fluid does not have a pump to push it through the body. Instead, it relies on the contraction of the surrounding muscles to move it along its course. One of the great benefits of exercise and massage is the facilitation of lymph circulation.

The Problem of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is an accumulation of fluid that develops after lymph node removal during surgery, most notably breast cancer surgery, or as a result of damage from radiation treatment, injury or infection. The condition can also be present at birth or can appear during puberty or adulthood. Depending on the location of the affected or removed lymph nodes, lymphedema may appear in the armpits, legs or arms. Symptoms are swelling and pain in the affected area.

Lymphatic Drainage Treatment

Lymphedema is treated by lymphatic drainage, also called lymphatic massage or manual lymph drainage. During these treatments over a course of two to four weeks, the lymphatic drainage doctor or practitioner lightly massages the skin over the affected area. By gently stroking or rubbing the skin along the course of the lymphatic system structure, the practitioner is forcing the accumulated lymph fluid to drain through the correct channels. The patient experiences a significant reduction in swelling that begins during the initial week of treatment. Lymphatic drainage is a gentle, effective and pain-free procedure, but it is not for everyone. Patients who experience a sudden onset of swelling or an infection called lymphangitis should discontinue treatment. Patients with congestive heart failure must be closely watched because moving the fluid too quickly can strain the heart. If pain occurs, treatment is stopped until the cause is found and the pain relieved.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage and Other Treatments

At Gentle Wellness Center, we encourage certain patients to perform self-massage — under our guidance — as well as some light exercises that stimulate the flow of lymphatic fluid out of the affected arm or leg. Compression garments such as special stockings or long sleeves may be recommended in some cases; these encourage lymphatic flow by compressing the limb. Other treatments may include wrapping the limb or pneumatic compression via an inflation pump. Your clinician will review your situation and recommend the most suitable lymphedema treatment for you.