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What is Lymphatic Drainage?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Lymphatic drainage is the natural function of the lymphatic system, which is an essential part of immunity. If this function isn't working properly, it can cause a build-up of fluid in tissues as well as more serious medical problems like lymphagitis and lymphoma. Though most of the conditions caused by poor lymphatic drainage are treatable, some require prompt hospitalization and immediate medical care, since they can easily spread throughout the body. There is also a type of therapeutic massage called Lymphatic Drainage Therapy (LDT) to help this system work and to treat some of the conditions associated with the lymphatic system.

Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is made up of a network of thin tubes that run throughout the body called lymph vessels and oval-shaped organs called lymph nodes, which collect and filter lymph. As blood flows throughout the body, a thin, yellow fluid called plasma leaks out from blood vessels and mixes with interstitial fluid and water to surround the cells in different tissues. This mixture contains food for the cells, blood cells that are important for immunity, and also waste put out by the cells. It drains into the lymph vessels, after which it is called lymph, and is then transported to lymph nodes, which contain immune cells. Since the lymphatic system doesn't have any way to move the fluid on its own, it relies on the movement from muscles in the body to push the fluid along, and valves to keep the fluid going in the right direction.

Once in the lymph nodes, the fluid is filtered, any disease-causing organisms are killed. Other organs that work with this system include the spleen, which takes out 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 respiratory system specifically.

Problems with Lymphatic Drainage

Since the lymphatic system plays such an important part in immunity, problems with lymphatic drainage can cause very serious health conditions. When lymph vessels or nodes are damaged or missing, the fluid cannot move quickly away from an area of the body. This causes it to pool up in the surrounding body tissue, causing it to swell. This is called lymphedema. If the fluid remains in the tissue for a long period of time, it can prevent the transportation of oxygen from the bloodstream to the tissue's cells and interfere with wound healing.

If the swelling is not treated, it can lead to the hardening of muscle tissue, skin deterioration, a loss of movement in the area, and in some cases, a bacterial infection called lymphagitis. 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 keep it from spreading throughout the body, and is generally treated with painkillers, 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 cancer, which are generally divided into Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. People with this condition are typically more prone to infections than others, since their immune system is compromised, and may also have headaches, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss. It's important to treat this condition quickly, since it can easily spread throughout the system and become fatal. Treatment generally consists of chemotherapy or radiation.

Lymphatic Drainage Therapy

LDT consists of specific movements that are used to lightly push 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, wearing tight-fitting clothing, and injuries like sprains and fractures. It also sometimes happens a side effect of chemotherapy treatments and surgeries done to remove breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. During an LDT session, a massage therapist gently presses and moves his or her hands along the body in specified directions. For instance, if a person's arms and legs are swollen, then the massage therapist may rub both sides of his or her neck with a downward motion.

Though 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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999042 — On Oct 17, 2017

I have swollen (tennis ball size) supraclavicular lymph glands. I had an ultrasound done and no signs of a tumor on either the glands or in my abdomen. I had been drinking heavily at the time. How can I help these lumps to go away? I am exercising, staying sober, keeping hydrated and eating healthy and losing weight. Would lymphatic drainage massage help? Can I get them drained with a needle? Is is actually fluid that is the swelling, or the lymph gland/node itself? My doctor seems to have no idea or concern. Please help.

By anon938883 — On Mar 11, 2014

If you want to receive lymphatic drainage from a properly trained therapist., go to the major schools to find a therapist near you.

Check out the Academy of Lymphatic Studies, Vodder School, Klose Training or Norton School.

By anon319434 — On Feb 13, 2013

I seem to have lymphedema and is very painful. I would like to inquire if alcohol has an effect on the swelling?

By anon319372 — On Feb 12, 2013

About the pain in your hip, check for deep vein thrombosis just in case!

By anon190833 — On Jun 27, 2011

I'm extremly unhappy with my legs and this article as well as other research tells me I may have circulation and lymphatic problems.

My thighs, mainly, are extremly wobbly, almost like there's a lot of water inside them, and I get cellulite very easly around my leg area if I squeeze it. Also I have terrible circulation because at night. When I sleep, my feet get extremely cold and I can't keep them warm unless I use a hot water bottle, sometimes even during hot summer nights. Could this be my lymph system not working correctly? Thanks, Joana

By anon180862 — On May 27, 2011

I have had a long progression tension headaches and was told that it was my lymphatic blockage. i am having lymphatic drainage massage which is really helping. has any one else had this? how long will it take?

By anon164271 — On Mar 31, 2011

My left nostril tends to block when i go to sleep at night especially after 1:00 a.m when I've slept for a while.

What i do is to exercise by open and closing the nostril until the blockage is free but it tends to block again.

Whenever i do finger exercised, i could feel circulation moving inside my body, especially in my stomach and intestine. Also i experience slight heat and stickiness on my left shoulder blade. could it be due to the blockage of my lymph nodes?

By anon155945 — On Feb 25, 2011

Regarding the person with a swollen leg after prostate cancer. Great that things are sounding better! Lymph drainage alone will unfortunately not solve your problem. It is an important component but you should really be doing complete decongestive therapy which comprises of manual lymph drainage, compression bandaging, compression stockings, exercise and skin care. It's a complete course - you should consult a certified lymphedema therapist. good luck!

By anon143765 — On Jan 17, 2011

my dad suffers from prostate cancer but it has been checked to minimal and his PSA has dropped from 50 in a few days of herbal treatment, i.e., after he had undergone surgery in india.

right now his right leg is swollen and this causes much pain as he walks. on a daily basis i massage back the fluid from the sole of his feet up to his waist region. this helps him to move about but i wonder how long it will continue. i seek advice as i feel this is mainly as a result of his lymphatic drainage system. --scott from nigeria

By anon95220 — On Jul 11, 2010

by gentle movements of body and breathing, all areas are moved/stimulated and this improves lymph flow.

By anon79750 — On Apr 24, 2010

I have been waking up with swollen eyelids and bags under my eyes as well as swollen nasal passages and congestion for four months now. Could this be symptoms of lymphatic issues? My doctor says this is from allergies, and I have been on allergy shots for 2 1/2 months with no improvement. Any ideas?

By anon75929 — On Apr 08, 2010

i have lymphedema in my left foot /leg and I'm recently getting a pain in my inner hip. can anyone help?

By anon74148 — On Mar 31, 2010

Lymph nodes become swollen when they are involved in actively fighting an infection. The fluid is moved by our body motions, and has done so for thousands of years without trouble, or needing extra help. Toxins are dealt with by the liver and then filtered from the blood by the kidneys.

By anon73736 — On Mar 29, 2010

I have had lymphoma. should I have a lymphatic drainage done?

By anon73595 — On Mar 28, 2010

i have bags under my eyes. i had plastic surgery to lift the skin around my eyes, but it did not help. are there lymph glands in this area? thank you

By anon63308 — On Feb 01, 2010

dear fatima: it is indeed possible that your sore legs are attributable to a congested lymphatic system.

other causes could indeed be indicated but if we consider that the lymphatic system is responsible for waste disposal from the tissues, and if it is blocked then it is like an overflowing waste bin or sewer system with gunk and junk sitting around for long periods of time, that could possibly be setting up a low grade form of inflammation or irritation within the tissues.

you would perhaps be able to test this theory by palpating your lymph nodes, especially the ones in the groin or inguinal region, which are located in the region where the leg joins the hip, there in the anatomical crease or fold you will find a series of lumps or nodes.

If they are rock hard, or even tender or swollen then that is indicative of impaired function of the lymphatic system in your lower body. i would guess that you do little exercise or activities that use your legs such as walking, riding, jogging or even things such as yoga or pilates.

doing such exercises actually stimulates the musculoskeletal pump which is the actual mechanism whereby lymphatic flow is facilitated by the rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the skeletal muscles, which kind of functions as a pump to milk the fluid through the lymphatic vessels.

also i would suggest you need to increase your fluid intake, and avoid alcohol or caffeine containing beverages as they will further dehydrate your body, thereby leading to a thick and gunky lymphatic system.

of course lymphatic drainage massage would be well indicated as a beneficial therapy for you.

hope this helps.:)

By anon45415 — On Sep 16, 2009

i have heavy legs and they are so sore to the touch. i was told that its my lymphatic system that isn't functioning. please let me know if im on the right path. Thanks, Fatima.

By anon30844 — On Apr 25, 2009

Most often qigong routines are preformed by practitioners to build personal qi for health or martial arts development.

Medical qigong refers to routines designed to target health conditions, but may also refer to qi healing (similar to reiki or healing touch therapy).

There are several subcategories of qi when spoken of in Chinese medicine (of which qigong is considered an element of).

There is:

Da (great) qi - the air/atmosphere/universal energy that is the motivating factor of all manifestations of existence.

Gu qi - the energy derived from food and drink.

Yuan qi - the original energy derived from ones parents

Wei Qi - the resistive to disease function of ones immune system

Ying qi - which is the nutritive aspect of qi which relates to blood

Each organ has a form of qi (i.e. liver qi, heart qi, etc...)

Qi is said to be the motivating factor of blood and jin (fluids i.e. lymph, mucus, etc.), therefore controlling qi can facilitate the proper movement of those systems.

Qiqong (Chi Kung) literally translates as Qi (internal energy, life force, air, etc...) skill.

Skill in qi means that you have, through exercise, diet (including medicinal herbs), meditation or spiritual act improved or increase the quantity, functionality, and efficiency of qi internally (inside your body). Acupuncture/Acupressure can also direct qi inside the body.

Internal examples include developing qi to withstand blunt trauma to the body, a feat often demonstrated by qigong "masters"; or using qi to balance, restore and facilitate the various bodily systems in yourself or others through qi transmission, called fa qi.

Qi may also be cultivated externally (in the environment around you), through art, music and design. For example arranging your furniture in such a way as to allow positive qi flow (unobstructed) through an area, commonly referred to as feng shui (wind/water).

Can qigong help, *yes*, but get the right stuff, I suggest trying an oriental medical college for a good referral.

By anon24326 — On Jan 11, 2009

Qi Gong helps lymphatic drainage through the slow movement while performing the Qi Gong exercises (looks a lot like Tai Chi Martial Art). the movement of the body promotes the pumping of lymph fluids and therefore stimulates proper drainage.

By anon18074 — On Sep 14, 2008

Has anyone use lymphatic drainage to treat Auto-immune EAR disease with good results?


By knittingpro — On Apr 06, 2008

Qi gong also claims to help with lymphatic draining, but I am not entirely sure how that would work, does anyone know?

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