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The Medical Value of Manual Lymphatic Drainage

Terri A. Wojak January 2012 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
manual lymphatic drainage on a skin care client

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The lymphatic system is a vital component of the immune system. This body system has three main functions: to maintain fluid balance by the removal of excess fluids from body tissues; to absorb fats and transport them to blood; and to protect the body against disease. The lymphatic system consists of a complex network of lymphoid organs including lymph nodes, lymph ducts, lymphatic tissues, lymph capillaries and lymph vessels that produce and transport lymph fluid from tissues throughout the circulatory system. This system doesn’t have a pump like the circulatory system, and may slow down for a variety of reasons, such as poor lifestyle choices, injuries and autoimmune disorders that can result in swollen lymph nodes, edema, poor circulation, illness and disease.

Manual lymphatic drainage is a procedure intended to improve the circulation of lymph throughout the body in order to induce relaxation, reduce edema and improve specific conditions when directed by a physician. This massage technique was originally founded by Emil Vodder, PhD, and his wife Estrid. The Vodders were both physical therapists in Cannes, France, in the 1930s. During this time, the majority of their patients came from Northern Europe where they consistently have damp climates. As they were treating patients with chronic colds, they noticed a correlation with upper respiratory conditions and swollen lymph nodes. After researching the lymphatic system at great length, they developed a light, rhythmic massage with stretching movements to stimulate lymph flow throughout the body. In 1936, this technique started to become recognized by the medical community when the Vodders presented their findings to the public at a health and beauty congress in Paris. Since then, many physicians, lymphologists and other researchers have come up with their own techniques for stimulating the lymphatic system, most of which involve many of the same basic principles used in the Vodder method.

The technique

Manual lymphatic drainage massage is not a typical massage of the skin and muscles; it is a very complex process. The pressure is extremely light—softer than the weight of a quarter; just the opposite of deep tissue massage, during which firm pressure is used. If the pressure is too hard, the lymph system will likely not be affected, because it lies directly beneath the skin. When lymphatic drainage is performed, all movements must be applied in the direction of lymphatic flow toward the right lymphatic duct and the thoracic duct—these both drain lymph into the circulatory system at the right and left subclavian veins. These veins are present at the base of the neck below the clavicles.

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