On the long list of evocatively named services on spa menus around the world, ‘Manual Lymphatic Drainage’ (MLD) must surely count as one of the least enticing. MLD, to put it frankly, sounds like a painful misadventure with a plumber. But to experience MLD is to undergo a form of touch therapy whose gentleness belies a powerful therapeutic potential.
As I lay down on the massage table at the Center for Lymphatic Health in Santa Barbara, I fidgeted nervously. Please don’t hurt me, I said under my breath. The practitioner, Alan Mills, the Center’s founder, began pressing lightly on my neck, his fingers pushing just a few centimeters below the surface. Over and over, he moved the skin in a light rolling motion over my lymph nodes in the direction of my heart. Within minutes, to my surprise, I was falling asleep.
This reaction is apparently not at all unusual. Because lymphatic drainage lowers the amount of fluid in the tissue, it lowers the blood pressure and has a calming effect, Mills explains. People who suffer from stress get a lot of relief.
MLD was pioneered in the 1930s by a husband-and-wife team, Dr. Emil Vodder and Estrid Vodder, who ran a successful medical clinic on the French Riviera. Inspired by a series of copper engravings by the 17th century anatomist Marie Philibert Constant Sappey, the Vodders began to focus their research on the lymphatic system and developed a method of hand movements that manipulate the lymph nodes. The Vodders coined the term ‘Manual Lymphatic Drainage’ to describe their techniques.
In the ensuing years, scientists and doctors have confirmed what the Vodders intuited: that the lymphatic system is essential to our health. It plays a starring role in distributing and regulating life-giving fluids. With approximately 600 to 700 lymph nodes throughout the body, connected by vessels, the system is like a network of rivers and islands, transporting fluids and nutrients throughout the body. It also takes dangerous waste products, toxins, and other physical debris from the connective tissue back to the bloodstream, where it can then be filtered and removed. With no pump, it relies on peristalsis and the movement of the skeletal muscles, typically achieved through breathing and exercise, to squeeze fluid through lymph ducts and vessels.
When everything clicks, the lymphatic system has a key part in maintaining a healthy immune response. But when something upsets this vital balance, the consequences can be dire. If pathways become congested, blocked, damaged, or severed, then fluids can build up in the connective tissue. This can lead to conditions such as edema, the build-up of fluid in an organ; or fibrosis, the formation or development of excess fibrous tissue. Even more worrisome, cell pathology may begin, which can contribute to the development of cancer.
In my opinion, many cancers are caused by congestive situations, states Mills. Stress and other hormones, which are proteins, can bond together and create blockages in the lymphatic system. And blockages are breeding grounds for bacteria, viruses, and cellular distortion.
MLD may be one means of preventing such blockages. It is believed to encourage the natural circulation of the lymph throughout the body. Using superficial, gentle strokes, it promotes the flow of lymphatic fluids by mobilizing waste and fluid back into the body’s drainage system so that they can be more effectively eliminated.
Practitioners say MLD can be an effective component of overall health maintenance. This treatment is especially useful for those individuals that feel that their system is sluggish, or those who seem to get regular colds and flu’s, says Olga Lorencin-Northrup, founder of Kinara Spa in Los Angeles, California, whose ninety-minute Signature Lymphatic Treatment begins with a lymph-stimulating dry body brushing. But it can be useful for anyone as a strategy for self-care.
Lorencin-Northrop adds that MLD is also a very effective treatment for more serious ailments, including high blood pressure and chronic fatigue, and for skin problems such as eczema.
Some people, however, should exercise caution before obtaining this treatment. If a patient has a cardiac condition or a congestive heart condition, lymphatic drainage massage could cause the problem to get worse, says Robert Harris, director of the Dr. Vodder School International in Victoria, British Columbia, which trains therapists in MLD techniques. General lymphatic drainage is also contraindicated if someone has an acute or chronic infection or a damaged lymphatic system, for instance, following chemotherapy. But if a well-trained therapist understands the pathology, he or she can help the patient address the problem.
Harris, who has been practicing MLD since 1983, points out, MLD is recognized by the medical community as a treatment for lymphedema, and increasingly, medical doctors are recommending [it]for other types of swelling conditions. He adds that MLD may be beneficial prior to surgery, as it cleanses the tissues and prepares them for trauma. However, he adds, in any instance of swelling, it is very important to know the precise cause before embarking on any type of therapy.
With the benefits associated with MLD, it’s not surprising that treatments targeting the lymph system are becoming popular in the spa. “For a population that is healthy overall, such as the spa population, it’s a wonderful form of general health maintenance”, Harris comments.
While some spas offer stand-alone MLD treatments, others include lymphatic stimulation as one component of more comprehensive therapies. At the Spa at the Four Seasons New York, the Botanical Balancer Facial includes fifteen minutes of lymphatic stimulation, performed by a trained therapist. As the guest relaxes in a candlelit, Zen-like treatment room, an esthetician performs a deep cleansing and exfoliation with all-natural, organic products. The lymphatic stimulation portion of the treatment further detoxifies the body, reducing puffiness around the face and eye area. “This treatment is one of our most popular facials,” says Spa Director Kerry Williams. “It is very relaxing and leaves the skin with a radiant glow.”
Williams points out that lymphatic stimulation is not the same thing as lymphatic drainage. “Our therapists are trained in lymphatic stimulation techniques, which address the lymphatic system generally, but they may not have completed an extensive training in MLD, and may therefore not be qualified to treat medical conditions such as lymphedema,” she notes. “However, lymphatic stimulation can be a great component of overall health maintenance.”
Similarly, the Relaxation Massage at the Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Mayakoba in Riviera Maya, Mexico, includes manual techniques that enhance lymphatic drainage. “Detoxification soothes and heals the body on the most profound level,” says Spa Director Maxime Cormier.
As I rouse from my nap on the massage table in Mills’s softly lit studio, his smile tells me that our session is complete. “Drink a lot of water today!” he advises. “That will prevent recycling of the waste material back into the system.” He also encourages me to increase my fiber intake and avoid coffee, colas, and foods grown with pesticides. I step off the table feeling deeply rested and relieved that in spite of its intimidating-sounding name, in fact, manual lymphatic drainage turned out to be as pleasant and relaxing as a day at the spa.
REBOUNDING FOR LYMPHATIC HEALTH
As the lymphatic system lacks a pump to move the fluid, it relies on muscle contraction and respiration. Therefore, exercise plays a crucial role in maintaining lymphatic health. Rebounding, otherwise known as jumping on a trampoline, is the perfect exercise for enhancing the lymph system.
“Jumping on a trampoline brings oxygen and nutrients to the cells and facilitates the removal of waste products”, says Angela Battaglia, M.Ed., a Certified Fitness Trainer and Supervisor of the Fitness and Recreation Department at The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona. “By alternating weightlessness with double gravity, lymph ducts expand, increasing lymph flow and flushing out toxins.”
Battaglia recommends the trampoline for just about everyone. “In addition to activating the lymphatic and immune systems, rebounding increases circulation, enhances coordination, fights fatigue, improves muscle tone and digestion, and promotes better sleep”, she says.
Trampolines are available at most sporting goods stores as well as numerous specialty outfits and through online retailers such as Amazon.com. “Choose the size that suits your space and your lifestyle”, says Battaglia. “If you have ample outdoor space, you might opt for a larger model; city dwellers in small apartments might chose smaller ones. Try to test out a few different sizes, and pick the one that suits your lifestyle best.”
Battaglia offers the following tips for embarking on a program of rebounding:
1. Start slow and build up to 20 minutes daily. Even five to ten minutes of rebounding will help activate the immune system.
2. Don’t bounce too high; maintain control. You don’t want to fall off your rebounder and sustain an injury.
3. Unlike sports activities such as running or biking, rebounding doesn’t require stretching or other special preparations. “It’s easy on the joints and back, burns more calories than running, and can be adjusted to your fitness level”, says Battaglia.
4. Make sure to rehydrate; after rebounding, you’ll need extra liquids to help flush the toxins from the body.
5. Finally, Battaglia cautions, wait at least an hour after consuming a big meal before rebounding.
Spas Offering Lymphatic Therapies
Manual Lymphatic Drainage
Salish Lodge & Spa,Seattle, WA
(800) 272-5474, www.salishlodge.com
Botanical Balancing Facial
Four Seasons New York, New York, NY
(212) 758-5700, www.fourseasons.com
Signature Lymphatic Treatment
Kinara Spa, Los Angeles, CA
(310) 657-9188, www.kinaraspa.com
Cornelia Day Resort, New York, NY
(212) 871-3050, www.cornelia.com
Energetic Lymphatic Drainage
Spa Orange, Hotel Best Western Europa, Montreal, Canada
(866) 582-1772, www.europahotelmtl.com
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
COMO Shambhala Retreat Parrot Ca, Turks & Caicos
(877) 754-0726, www.parrotcay.como.bz
Fairmont Mayakoba, Riviera Maya, Mexico
(800) 540-6088, www.fairmont.com/mayakoba
The Mayflower Inn & Spa, Washington, CT
(860) 868-9466, www.mayflowerinn.com
by Katherine Stewart
Main image: Total Body Clinic