News and Blogs

Go with the flow: getting to know your lymphatic system

FRI, 03 MAR, 2023 - 15:13

The lymphatic system drains excess fluid from the body’s tissues and plays a vital role in supporting our immune system. Manual Lymphatic Drainage is an established massage therapy that can help the system to function more efficiently.

MLD Irish Examiner

Monday, March 6, is World Lymphoedema Day, which educates people about lymphatic diseases. Little is known about the body’s lymphatic system or manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), a treatment that helps the system to function more efficiently, and in doing so, promotes healing and relaxation in the body.

“The lymphatic system has long been called the neglected child of medicine,” says Meadbh Mac Sweeney, a lymphoedema nurse consultant and clinic director of the Lymph Clinic in Cork City. “It was neglected by the scientific and medical communities, but over the past 20 years, we have come to realise how vital it is to maintaining good health.”

The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic vessels, tissues, organs, and glands that clean the body’s tissues by draining a watery fluid, called lymph, from the cells. “Water, protein, glucose, and other nutrients are distributed to the body’s cells and what isn’t utilised is collected by the lymph fluid and delivered back to the heart through the lymphatic vessels for recirculation,” says MacSweeney.

In this way, the lymphatic system maintains the body’s fluid balance. “It collects excess fluid from tissues and returns it to the bloodstream,” says Monica Conway, a lymphoedema consultant practitioner and owner of the Bio-Health Centre in Clonmel. “Up to four litres of lymph fluid is returned to the bloodstream every day.”

Lymph also plays a role in the immune system, picking up metabolic waste and other unwanted material on its journey around the body. These include bacteria, viruses, and damaged or mutant cells, such as cancer cells.

“Lymph travels through the lymph vessels that connect to lymph nodes, and inside those nodes are white blood cells that attack and break down anything that needs to be removed from the body,” says Conway.


All the right moves

There are times when our lymphatic system slows down. “Unlike our blood-circulation system, lymph circulation doesn’t have a pump and needs us to move for it to move,” says MacSweeney.

This means that if we are immobile for a time, our lymphatic system can become sluggish. This can also happen after a viral infection, in the aftermath of trauma or stress, post-surgery or during pregnancy.

When the system slows down, it can lead to the body not eliminating its waste efficiently, which can cause water retention, swelling, or bloating.

There are also more serious issues that affect the lymphatic system. Cancer treatment, resulting in the removal of lymph nodes, chemotherapy, or radiation can cause a condition known as lymphoedema. This is the abnormal fluid accumulation in the tissues and, if left untreated, can lead to swelling, a restricted range of movement, and discomfort.

Meadbh Mac Sweeney
Meadbh Mac Sweeney

“Breast-cancer patients, for example, can develop a swelling in their arm, breast or truncal area after treatment,” says Conway. “Any part of the body that has been treated for cancer can develop lymphoedema.”

Some people are born with inadequate lymphatic vessels. “This is called primary lymphoedema and it can present at birth or later stages in life, following a particular trigger, such as trauma or infection,” says MacSweeney.

Manual lymphatic drainage can treat or alleviate the symptoms of these conditions. “MLD is a gentle, specialist massage technique that removes fluid from tissues,” says Conway. “It consists of light, rhythmic hand movements that stretch the skin to stimulate the lymphatic system, aiding the formation and transport of lymph around the body.”

These movements improve lymph flow, with many beneficial knock-on effects. “MLD can increase the flow three-fold, speeding up the removal of debris from the tissues and the subsequent delivery of fresh nutrients to the cells. It also boosts the immune system by encouraging the destruction of pathogens and promoting recovery. This can help with everything from healing wounds and burns, broken bones and torn ligaments to chronic conditions, such as sinusitis and arthritis. MLD can also ease water retention, improve sleep quality, relieve constipation and has a calming effect on the automatic nervous system that leaves you feeling deeply relaxed.”

It can even improve your skin. “MLD is decongestive and restorative,” says MacSweeney. “It provides deep relaxation, while accelerating cellular repair and regeneration, all of which promote a clear, healthy complexion.”


MLD gives your body a boost

MLD is not just a specialist treatment for specific medical conditions: It is also a treatment that can give healthy bodies a much-needed boost.

“It’s beneficial for anybody, but particularly anybody who has swelling,” says Conway. “It can treat conditions like acne and fibromyalgia or as a general detox to improve wellbeing.”

Some conditions are contraindicated, including untreated active cancer, thrombosis and heart problems. Pregnant women should also avoid MLD during the first trimester.

This is why Conway recommends that people take care when choosing an MLD therapist. “There are two types of MLD training,” she says. “There’s the medical training in which healthcare professionals are taught to diagnose lymphoedema and related conditions and to identify any contraindications. Then there’s the beauty therapist training. People who are ill or suffering from a medical condition should only receive MLD from a professional with the necessary qualifications.”

Whether we opt for MLD or not, all of us can improve our lymphatic systems, starting with gentle exercise.

“The movement of lymph is quite slow, at five to ten pulses a minute,” says MacSweeney. “So any stretching exercise or movement that mirrors this rate complements the lymph flow. Yoga, walking, swimming, pilates and tai chi are great options. The optimum performance of the lymphatic system also requires good hydration, so drink plenty of water. And always rest your body when it feels tired.”