Lymphatic Drainage. We’ve all heard the term. I used to think it was some kind of painful way of getting rid of something that I didn’t want to know what was in my body. Probably from somewhere I didn’t necessarily want it drained from. It turns out I was very wrong. I also noticed that if I stayed still for a long time and didn’t exercise for a few days, I began to feel stuffy and stagnant, less able to move, and a bit “off”. But this feeling went away after getting out there and doing something. Endorphins, or something altogether less complex? Could it be to do with the lymphatic system? Well. First off, what is the lymphatic system, and what the heck does it do?!
So what is the lymphatic system, and what does it do?
The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels and nodes, and does not have a pump (unlike the heart in the circulatory system). As part of the circulatory system it has three key functions:
1) Drainage of metabolic waste (think lactic acid kind of stuff) and interstitial fluid (which is important in maintaining blood volume and pressure),
2) Transportation of vitamin A and fatty acids.
3) Fighting bacteria by producing white blood cells – important for immunity functions.
Why is lymphatic drainage important to me?
Well, if fluids aren’t moving around your body as efficiently as they should it is likely that your lymphatic system (and ultimately your circulatory system) is under stress. Perhaps you are experiencing swelling or restricted joint movement? Your muscles might feel tight or constricted in their movements. This could be due to retention of fluid which is putting pressure on pain receptors, which in turn means lack of oxygen delivery to muscles and decreased metabolic waste removal from cells.
Without replenished supplies of oxygen cells will die, the debris they leave behind causes congestion in capillaries and put pressure on pain receptors. You feel pain. The result is less oxygen reaching the cells and ischemia (restricted blood supply and therefore oxygen delivery). Muscles become less relaxed and space between cells reduces.
This cycle of reduced oxygen and increased pain continues unless there is intervention.
If you are experiencing swelling there will be pressure on blood and lymph vessels – this leads to decreased oxygen and nutrient delivery to muscles and ultimately you feel pain. With manual pressure (through massage) the circulation to those affected areas can be increased (with lymphatic drainage), leading to increased oxygen and nutrient delivery.
One key thing to bear in mind is that the lymphatic system does not have an inbuilt pump like the blood’s circulatory system, i.e. the heart. The lymphatic system is totally reliant on a number of other methods to move lymph throughout the body, these include the contraction of skeletal muscles and the change of pressure in the lymphatic system caused by recoil of the diaphragm when breathing. Manual compression is also a way in which fluids are pumped back towards the heart. If muscles are not working correctly (for a myriad of reasons) then the interstitial fluid is unable to return to the circulatory system. Pressure will build up and put strain on joints, leading to muscle tightness and reducing range of movement.
What can massage do to help?
By applying manual pressure in the correct way (using strokes which follow the network of lymph vessels) your therapist can effectively increase lymphatic drainage, and the circulation of fluids can be increased. This leads to relief of pressure on pain receptors and the removal of excess fluids from around joints. You will experience less pain, improved range of movement and your immune system will work more effectively. Because the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump it is reliant on mechanical pressure to move fluids around its vessels.
This is why, if you are experiencing reduced range of movement, pain or swelling around a joint, soft tissue therapy and massage can be of benefit.