Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

What is the Lymphatic System?

The lymphatic system consists of a network of organs and tissues that help the body dispose of toxins and other waste products. It also transports lymph (fluid) which carries infection fighting white blood cells to where they are needed. It plays a key role within the immune system and its purpose is to manage fluid levels in the body as well as dealing with bacteria, cancer cells and waste by-products of bodily functions that could lead to disease and disorder if not addressed.

This system includes lymphatic tube-like vessels, similar to veins and capillaries, which collect lymphatic fluid leaked from blood vessels and return it back to the circulatory system via lymph nodes. Lymph nodes filter the fluid for bacteria, viruses and cancer cells collected by macrophages (large white blood cells) from throughout the body, and lymphocytes (small white blood cells) within the nodes attack and kill bacteria. These nodes are found in small groups in a variety of places in the body with the greatest concentration in the underarms, chest, groin, throat, abdomen, and behind the knees.

Like the lymph nodes, the spleen acts like a filter in the lymphatic system. It is located in the abdomen on the left side of the body just below the rib cage and is the largest organ in the system. It plays an important role in producing and storing cells, including a variety of white blood cells that act in the body’s defence. The spleen also destroys old or damaged red blood cells and helps in increasing blood volume quickly when someone loses a lot of blood. Another structure within the lymphatic system is the thymus. It sits behind the breastbone and produces T-lymphocyte cells that respond to immune challenges, for example infection in the body, as well as filtering and monitoring blood. There are also other structures that act as part of the lymphatic system including the lining of the digestive and respiratory systems, the tonsils, the appendix, and Peyer’s patches within the intestines.

Disorders of the Lymphatic system

As the lymphatic system plays a role of filtering fluid within the body, disorders of this system often leave the person with increased fluid (or swelling) in a specific area. This is often most apparent in one (or several) of the limbs. 

The most common disorders of the lymphatic system are; 

  1. Cancers affecting the lymphatic system itself or that result in cancerous tissue ending up in the lymph system e.g. Lymphoma and breast cancers.
  2. Infection of the lymphatic tissue – called lymphadenitis. e.g. Tonsillitis. 

Both of these issues cause the lymphatic system to not function effectively resulting in fluid being unable to drain from an area. This is called lymphedema.

What is Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) and what does it do?

The aim of MLD is to kickstart a sluggish lymphatic system and to move fluid from swollen areas to a part of the system that is functioning normally. MLD involves a series of specialised light strokes to the skin in a specific order and direction around the body.  The reason for the light strokes is to not flatten the delicate lymph vessels. The direction is important as it aims to open up nodes starting from the heart and working outwards, as each area drains and clears a pathway towards the area of concern.

MLD is performed in a slow rhythmical pattern in line with relaxed breathing therefore a full body treatment takes a little longer than normal Myotherapy or Remedial Massage treatment. The recommended treatment time is 90 mins for greatest effectiveness. Your Myotherapist can also provide you with self drainage techniques that you can perform at home to keep the benefits continuing between sessions.

Who may benefit from MLD treatment?

Lymphatic drainage massage may be helpful for people experiencing any of the following conditions:

  • Lymphedema
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Swelling or oedema post surgery or cancer treatment
  • Some skin disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Arthritis
  • Stress
  • Digestive issues
  • Migraines

MLD is not for everyone though and some conditions such as congestive heart failure, kidney disease, blood clots and circulatory issues should seek medical approval before beginning treatment.

Written by Jo Patterson


Published October 25, 2019


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