If lymph accumulates in the tissue, this will cause swelling in affected body part. Patients suffering from lymphedema know this all too well. But what can be done about lymph pooling in the body? We will explain how lymphatic drainage works – and which exercises help you combat congestion in your tissue.
Heat, tight clothing or standing for extended periods can be very uncomfortable for edema patients. This is because lymph flow comes to a halt quickly, causing fluid to pool in the tissue. Edema can develop based on a hereditary predisposition, for example, but also because of anti-cancer surgery where lymph nodes were removed. It is important that the edema is treated to prevent it from progressing. In cases of lymphedema, a method called complex decongestive therapy has proven successful. It consists of different treatment pillars. One particularly important one is lymphatic drainage.
How does lymphatic drainage work?
The fine lymph channels are not only located in the arms or thighs, but lymph also flows in the face, neck, chest, abdomen and down to the knees and feet. Lymphatic drainage combines two positive effects at the same time: thanks to freeing up the lymph nodes with massage, the fluid can drain. Additionally, the lymph vessels are “trained” to remove more fluid again. Lymphatic drainage is carried out several times per week by a trained physiotherapist or massage therapist. During this process, the skin is not kneaded and pushed like during a classic massage. Instead gentle strokes are used to increase lymph flow. Using circular motions, the accumulated fluid is carefully moved into healthy areas. The lymphatic system removes it from there.
After manual lymphatic drainage, it is essential to maintain the decongested state using a compression garment.
Lymphatic drainage at home
The therapist can also show patients some movements for home use. Alternatively, the physician can prescribe a device for intermittent pneumatic compression (such as the lympha-mat by Bösl). This is a medical device that carries out mechanical lymphatic drainage. Special cuffs are put around the arms, upper body or legs and inflated to a pressure that is comfortable for you, which is maintained for a specified treatment duration (e.g. 20 minutes every morning and evening). This pressure decongests the tissue and stimulates lymph flow.
However, it is particularly important for you to do something yourself to encourage healthy lymph flow.
Which movements stimulate lymph?
In the calves, the “muscle pump” helps transport lymph – when taking the stairs, for example. If there are no stairs nearby, you can also walk on the spot, meaning alternating ground contact between the heels and the balls of your feet.
When you are standing or sitting, you can also rock on your feet: slowly transfer your weight to the heels first. The balls of the feet lift off the ground. Then transfer the weight back to the balls of the feet, with the heels lifting.
During “lateral leg raises”, you are standing up, alternating between lifting the left and right leg sideways. You can slowly “pace” short distances through your home: consciously roll the foot from heel to toe with each step. Deep breathing helps you relax during this exercise, and it stimulates lymphatic drainage at the same time.