For massage therapists interested in medical massage, lymphatic massage therapy is a sensible continuing education choice. Lymphatic massage is a light touch technique designed to promote the flow of lymph and the natural drainage of tissues. On its own or combined with other therapies, it can play a significant role in pregnancy, orthopedic, pediatric and oncology massage.
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Manual Lymphatic Drainage
Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), also known as lymphatic massage or lymphatic drainage, is a gentle massage modality that addresses a build up of lymph fluid in the extremities. This condition, called lymphedema, is caused by blockages in the lymphatic system. It’s often a side effect of cancer treatment, lymph node removal, infection in the lymph nodes, or pregnancy. Its first stage has a classic presentation called ‘pitted edema.’ If you press your finger into the affected area, it will live a temporary ‘pit’ instead of bouncing back. Its most severe stages, cause the effected limb to look engorged and leathery.
In a healthy body, contractions of lymph vessels and the movement of skeletal muscles circulates lymph, moving immune cells and collecting waste products. Lymph is swept to the lymph nodes and drains into the circulatory system for the body to process. The goal of MLD is to encourage the natural flow to lymph toward the lymph nodes and reduce fluid buildup.
Manual lymphatic drainage was originally developed in the 1930s by Drs. Emil and Estrid Vodder. While working with patients suffering from chronic colds, the Vodders noticed their patients frequently suffered from swollen lymph nodes. Not much was known about the lymphatic system in the 30s, and the Vodders dedicated their practice to studying lymph flow. They introduced their light, rhythmic drainage technique in 1936 and began teaching as a complementary therapy after World War II. The Vodder method is a school of MLD still used today.
How Does Lymphatic Massage Work?
Lymph vessels are a mesh of tiny, thin-walled structures that are encouraged to drain under specific conditions. About 70 percent of them are located just below the skin. Lymphatic massage therapists focus on lymph flow and work with the action of these capillaries for maximum potential benefit.
Lymphatic massage sessions are slow, gentle and rhythmic. The practitioner uses just enough pressure, about 1 to 4 ounces, to manipulate the skin and the lymph vessels just below it without pushing the vessels closed. The movements smoothly push and “stretch” the tissue to encourage fluid flow. The slow pace gives the fluid time to pass from vessel to vessel efficiently.
Benefits of Lymphatic Massage
Lymphedema can have a significant impact on quality of life. Lymphatic massage therapy on its own is meant to alleviate mild, or Stage 1, lymphedema. Because lymphedema can have a serious impact on other structures like blood vessels, clients seeking MLD should have a doctor’s approval before receiving treatments.
Key lymphatic massage benefits can include:
• Reduction of swelling
• Improved range of motion
• Relief from swelling-induced discomfort
• Relief from feelings of stress, anxiety and depression
• Boosts in confidence
Specialized MLD techniques are also available. Facial lymphatic drainage, for instance, is a medspa technique believed to promote healthy skin, help drain sinuses and encourage lymph flow in clients suffering from colds and flus.
Utilizing Lymphatic Massage Techniques
Many lymphatic massage therapists offer MLD as a stand-alone session. These sessions typically last 45 to 90 minutes. In cases of acute lymphedema, such as following surgery, some clients may seek 30-minute sessions once a day for several weeks. These short sessions can also be combined with other modalities to form a complete treatment plan.
MLD is an excellent complementary therapy to incorporate to other massage sessions either as a matter of routine or as a 30-minute add-on treatment. Because it’s often caused by cancer, it can be offered alongside oncology massage. It can be tailored into pregnancy massage sessions or the sports massage of a young athlete with hereditary lymphedema.
Teaching clients self-care techniques is a common part of MLD sessions. Self-care can help extend the effectiveness of a professional session and help clients with chronic lymphedema regain a sense of control over their bodies.
Lymphatic Massage vs Complete Decongestive Therapy
Lymphatic massage is a mild therapy, and on its own is best for the first and mildest stages of lymphedema. For more advanced cases, a comprehensive technique called complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is often recommended.
CDT is an aggressive protocol of lymphatic massage, bandaging, compression garments, exercise, and self-care performed under a doctor’s supervision. It’s meant to wrestle lymphedema under control and then maintain the results. It’s split into two phases. Phase One lasts 3 to 6 weeks and involves controlling moderate to severe swelling. Phase Two is an ongoing self-care protocol tailored to maintain the results. Performing CDT requires in-depth, specialized training beyond that of manual lymph drainage techniques alone.
Lymphatic Massage Training
Learning to perform lymphatic massage requires extensive training in the lymphatic system, the stages of lymphedema, drainage techniques, contraindications and hands-on practice. Individual lymphatic massage classes average 20 to 24 credit hours while certification takes 135 credit hours.
While is no standardized lymphatic massage certification, practitioners can become a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT). CLTs are typically drained in both lymphatic massage and complete decongestive therapy. CLT certification is overseen by the Lymphology Association of North America. They do not accredit schools, but they do have specific requirements for therapist certification. Applicants must complete a 135-credit hour program that meets their guidelines and pass a thorough examination.
Learning lymphatic massage techniques presents an opportunity to hone your current specialty, improve your day-to-day skill set or put your career on a new path in the medical massage field. It can be a versatile and valuable tool for any practice.