We are bombarded daily with environmental pollutants, which enter our bodies through the air we breathe, and chemical additives in the food we eat.

Free radicals (off-balance molecules from which oxygen has taken an electron) scavenge our system, contributing to tissue degeneration. Hydrogenated and processed foods, vitamin- and mineral-deficient diets, hormone-injected beef and poultry, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genetically-engineered foods–it’s a wonder the natural healing capacity of our bodies can keep up with the challenge. More and more of us are finding that our bodies cannot.

Many factors contribute to a sluggish or stagnant lymph flow. Common to many of us are a lack of adequate exercise, fatigue, a stressful lifestyle and age. Who can boast of a lifestyle unaffected by these conditions? Even emotional shock, the physical shock of a minor car accident, the stress on one’s system from cold temperatures and, of course, infections can cause swelling from slight to significant–an indication that the lymph is not properly moving.

Decide to Drain

There is help to meet these challenges and many other challenges created by a modern lifestyle. That help is a technique called lymphatic drainage. A trained practitioner with a gentle, light touch of a flat hand or fingertips on the skin can stimulate the stagnant or sluggish flow of lymph within the body to up to 20 times its natural capacity, thereby aiding in the detoxification and rejuvenation of the tissues of the body!

The client usually lies unclothed and professionally draped on a massage table, (although the therapy can be administered to a seated or standing client as well.) The practitioner uses a variety of repetitive circular, straight and vibrational strokes (depending on which method they use). The practitioner follows the anatomy of the lymphatic system. She will start by opening the flow at the collar bone, close to where the lymph joins venous circulation into the heart. One can then proceed to the neck, face and head; the chest and arms; or the deep abdominal flow to the nodes in the groin, legs, feet, back and buttocks. The practitioner will then work her way back up the body, to make sure pathways stay clear as sluggish lymph is pushed up and through the system, ending at the collar bone.

Health benefits can include reduced tissue swelling caused by soft tissue damage (for example, sprained or swollen ankles), sports injury, car accidents (like whiplash), reactions to medications, some headaches, radiation and surgery.

Lymphatic work has been, for many women instrumental for their proper breast care. It may work as a cancer preventative; clearing stagnation and increasing lymph flow; reducing cysts and swelling caused by biopsy, node removal and mastectomy.

Lymphatic work can stimulate the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, thereby increasing cellular and humoral immunity. Cellular immunity lasts from 30 minutes to 20 hours. Humoral immunity can last six to 20 years. This helps with a decreased sensitivity to allergies, more rapid recovery and prevention of colds and the flu, sinusitis and ear and eye problems.

Because the autonomic nervous system is affected, lymphatic work has an anti-spasmodic effect on stressed musculature, reducing chronic pain and increasing range of motion. Constipation, insomnia, lethargy, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue symptoms can also be improved. Cosmetically, lymphatic work helps alleviate scars, burns, stretch marks, wrinkles, cellulitis and adipose tissue.

Lymphing Along

Lymph is the colorless liquid, including 96 per cent water, proteins, digested fats, white blood cells, hormones and toxic waste products, that surrounds every cell. The lymphatic system is part of our circulatory system. It is composed of a tiny, delicate network of lymphatic vessels all over the body. This network collects lymph into vessels of varying sizes. One such vessel, called a lymphangion, contains spiral muscles innervated by the autonomic nervous system. The muscles contract to create a wave-like motion, which pushes the lymph forward to eventually join the circulation in a vein near the collar bone. The lymph, along with the blood, is pumped by the heart to the organs of purification (like the liver) to be cleansed.

As well as cleansing and detoxifying, the lymph system reclaims digested fats and proteins, the body’s source of energy, and adds them to the body’s circulation.

Along the lymphatic pathways are collections of lymph nodes (400 to 700 in total). These act like little factories to filter and purify, reclaim fluid and break down pathogens and toxins. They do this with the help of circulating specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes and macrophages. Swollen nodes in the neck, for instance, is an indication that the body’s defence system is working.

With the challenges of the 20th century, we have seen research into this important system of the body, the lymphatic system, including, in 1922, Canadian osteopathic physician Frederic Millard, and in 1936, Emil Vodder, a Danish massage practitioner and doctor of philosophy. Based on Vodder’s research and experiential evidence in helping clients to heal, he called his technique Manual Lymph Drainage, or MLD.

Feel the Difference

The latest and newest technique is called Lymph Drainage Therapy (LDT), created by Dr Bruno Chikly of France. This technique is based on his and other recent medical research. What makes this technique different from those previous is the practitioner’s ability to actually feel the direction, rhythm, quality and various depths of lymphatic flow throughout most of the body and to stimulate its flow up to 20 times faster (normal lymph flow is 1.5 to two litres per day). One can even feel disturbed or altered lymph flow around a previous surgical site and help the body through "mapping" to achieve a more direct and efficient pathway of drainage.

The results? A more personal, pleasurable, non-invasive, effective treatment, fine-tuned and individualized to meet a client’s unique, specific needs and conditions in different areas of the body.

Of course, there is no substitute for eating properly (avoid fried foods; they clog the lymph), hydrating the body by drinking plenty of pure water (to help with cleansing), exercising regularly (to stimulate the deep lymphatics), breathing deeply (to stimulate the lymphatic flow in the thoracic duct of the abdomen), jumping on a rebounder or doing light skin brushing in the direction of your lymph flow. If your lymph system is already challenged, you may need some help. Join the Europeans, who cleanse twice yearly with lymphatic drainage. Whether you choose MLD or LDT, enjoy the preventative health care, maintenance and relief provided by lymphatic drainage!

About the Author

Valerie Kemp is a teacher and healer with a full-time practice in bodywork, offering LDT in Vancouver, BC.