The lymphatic system, shown in green, is important for immunity.
Lymphatic drainage is the natural function of the lymphatic system, which is an essential part of immunity. If this function is not working properly, it can cause a buildup of fluid in the tissues, as well as more serious medical problems such as lymphangitis and lymphoma. While most diseases caused by poor lymphatic drainage are treatable, some require immediate hospitalization and immediate medical care as they can easily spread throughout the body. There is also a type of massage therapy called Lymphatic Drainage Therapy (LDT) to help this system work and to treat some of the conditions associated with the lymphatic system.
A human head with red and yellow adenoids.
The lymphatic system is made up of a network of thin tubes that run throughout the body, called lymph vessels, and oval organs, called lymph nodes, that collect and filter lymph. As blood flows throughout the body, a thin, yellow fluid called plasma leaks from blood vessels and mixes with interstitial fluid and water to envelop cells in different tissues. This mixture contains food for the cells, blood cells that are important for immunity and also waste products eliminated by the cells. It drains into the lymph vessels, after which it is called lymph, and then it is transported to the lymph nodes, which contain immune cells. Because the lymphatic system cannot move fluid on its own, it relies on the movement of the body’s muscles to push the fluid and valves to keep it in the right direction.
The doctor will have to determine the exact cause of swollen lymph nodes before making a diagnosis.
Once in the lymph nodes, the fluid is filtered and all disease-causing organisms are killed. Other organs that work with this system include the spleen, which removes dead or damaged red blood cells and contains white blood cells to fight disease, and the thymus, which produces more white blood cells. The tonsils and adenoids also work with this system and protect the digestive system and the respiratory system specifically.
Problems with Lymphatic Drainage
Swollen tonsils and adenoids are often removed.
Because the lymphatic system plays such an important role in immunity, problems with lymphatic drainage can cause very serious health problems. When lymph vessels or nodes are damaged or missing, fluid cannot move quickly away from an area of the body. This causes it to build up in the surrounding body tissue, causing it to swell. This is called lymphedema. If the fluid remains in the tissue for an extended period of time, it can impede the transport of oxygen from the bloodstream to the tissue’s cells and interfere with wound healing.
An individual with a low functioning immune system may be helped by a lymphatic drainage massage.
If the swelling is left untreated, it can lead to hardening of muscle tissue, deterioration of the skin, loss of movement in the area, and in some cases, a bacterial infection called lymphangitis. This condition causes the lymph vessels to become swollen, inflamed, and painful, and red lines may appear along the skin above the vessels. It requires immediate medical attention to prevent it from spreading throughout the body and is usually treated with pain relievers, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory medications.
People with severely compromised lymphatic drainage may also have lymphoma, a type of cancer. There are about 40 different types of this type of cancer, generally divided into Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. People with this condition are generally more prone to infections than others, since their immune system is compromised, and they can also experience headaches, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss. It is important to treat this condition quickly, as it can easily spread throughout your system and become life-threatening. Treatment usually consists of chemotherapy or radiation.
Lymphatic Drainage Therapy
LDT consists of specific movements that are used to lightly push the lymph through the system, helping it to drain out of the tissues and move throughout the body. This treatment is commonly used to help with lymphedema, which can be caused by heart problems, tight-fitting clothing, and injuries such as sprains and fractures. Sometimes there is also a side effect of chemotherapy treatments and surgeries done to remove breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. During an LDT session, the massage therapist gently presses and moves the hands along the body in the specified directions. For example, if a person’s arms and legs are swollen, the massage therapist may rub both sides of the neck in a downward motion.
Although this treatment can be very helpful, it’s generally not suitable for people with certain types of cancer, since it could encourage the cancer to spread throughout the body; as well as those with serious heart disease or circulatory problems, serious infections, or internal bleeding. Some massage therapists still do lymphatic drainage with people with these conditions, but may only work with one part of the body instead of all of it. This treatment is generally used together with other treatments, like exercising to promote circulation, compression therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, and ice packs. People can also learn to do it at home, but should only be trained by a medical massage therapist and should only do it after speaking to a healthcare provider to prevent any complications.