What to Expect When Getting a Manual Lymph Drainage Massage for Lymphedema

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Lymphedema is an incurable condition caused by fluid buildup in an area of the body where the lymph nodes have been damaged or removed. This condition is common in women who have had a single or double mastectomy, and it can occur in breast cancer patients who have had radiation treatment or steroids as well.

Lymphedema requires regular maintenance care to keep it from getting out of hand. Some common ways to reduce lymphedema-related swelling are to use a compression sleeve, get exercise, elevate the limb, and take precautions to avoid burns, infections, or other skin irritants in the affected area. Another treatment for this condition is manual lymph drainage.

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is a massage-based treatment that can be performed on the affected limb and other areas of the body to help the lymph fluid drain out through lymph nodes that have not been damaged or removed.

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

MLD focuses on opening up the healthy lymph nodes the patient still has and redirecting the excess fluid toward those areas instead of allowing it to continue to sit and cause swelling in the area where the lymph nodes are either damaged or absent. It is performed by massaging certain areas of the body, being careful to press in the right direction to encourage the flow of lymph fluid.

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

This procedure can be done on yourself with some training and practice, but there are also professionals who specialize in lymph drainage.

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

The woman in the video below is one such professional, and she helpfully explains each of the techniques she uses as she goes about rerouting fluid through her patient’s body. She demonstrates what manual lymph drainage often looks like for people who are missing lymph nodes in one quadrant of the body, generally affecting just one extremity (an arm in this case).

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Some of her motions, such as stationary circles, don’t appear to actually be moving fluid anywhere, but the woman explains that breaking up fibrotic tissue within the limb is like taking away a roadblock, allowing the lymphatic fluid to flow properly.

Some of the techniques are also meant to be performed on the opposite area of the body than the affected limb. This prepares the healthy lymph nodes to handle the extra fluid coming in from the affected area. “I always explain this to people,” says the MLD massage therapist, “because they always wonder why I’m working on the wrong side.”

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

The techniques she uses all have interesting names, such as “windshield wipers,” “the rotary,” “soldiers,” and “the pump.” You’re sure to find these moves both helpful and a little bit entertaining.

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Photo: YouTube/Erin Hopper

Learn more about how manual lymph drainage works in the video below.

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Want to know more about manual lymph drainage? Click “next” below to read about how to perform some of the basic techniques used in MLD on yourself.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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