Lymphatic drainage is sometimes termed 'massage' because it involves hand movements on the skin but it is very different from therapeutic or aromatherapy massage which can cause friction to the skin and increase the blood supply. This, in turn, causes more lymph to be produced.
There are two types of lymphatic drainage which may be used to treat lymphoedema – manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) and simple lymphatic drainage (SLD). Lymphatic draining techniques provide regular stimulation of the lymph vessels under the skin. It encourages them to work harder and find new pathways to drain away the lymph using a milking or syphoning effect to move lymph away from the swollen area. Treatment with MLD or SLD may be particularly helpful if you have swelling of your face, neck upper arm, thigh, breast, trunk or genitals.
Manual lymphatic drainage
Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is a very special type of massage designed to stimulate the lymphatic system. The hand movements and sequences are adapted for each person. It must be carried out by a qualified practitioner. Ask your lymphoedema specialist if you might benefit from MLD. If you would like to find out if there is a therapist in your area, contact MLD UK.
Simple lymphatic drainage
You may be taught a very simple form of massage which you can perform yourself each day. This is simple lymphatic drainage. The massage is based on the more complex technique of MLD and takes about 20 minutes. You should try to perform it at the same time each day so that your lymphatic system is stimulated regularly. You can carry out the massage with or without wearing your hosiery or bandages on your affected limb. The swollen area is never massaged when using this technique. Many people find it both convenient and relaxing to perform the massage at bedtime. If you wish, your lymphoedema therapist can teach a relative or friend to do the massage for you. This can be particularly helpful if you need massage to your back. If your partner is involved, a bonus may be that it increases your feeling of well-being and strengthens your relationship.
If you have a compression pump and have found it helpful, you should discuss its continued use with your lymphoedema therapist. Mechanical compression pumps 'squeeze' a swollen limb in a sleeve or boot which inflates and deflates at regular intervals. Lymph can be moved from a limb quite quickly but it may collect in the trunk of your body causing discomfort. Lymph may also return to the limb quickly when the pump is removed. However, a pump may help to soften the tissues of a limb and may be recommended by your therapist for this reason. New style compression pumps can mimic manual lymphatic drainage.
Other approaches to treatment
You may be advised to use a skin tape which aims to encourage lymph drainage. Your therapist will discuss this with you.