Lymphatic Self Care: Boosting Your Body’s Ability to Heal Itself
By Eileen Laird , LMBT, LTC
Lymph drainage is just such a therapy. The majority of lymph nodes are located on the front of the body, making them easy to reach. It’s gentle work, so it doesn’t strain over-tired hands and you can cleanse the main lymph nodes in just 15 minutes, which is plausible at the end of a long workday. The results are relaxation, detoxification and healing on many levels. I use this self-care sequence myself and have taught it to both clients and colleagues.
The Effects of Lymph Drainage
By manually stimulating the lymphatic system, you:
Increase the carrying capacity of the lymph system, allowing it to process up to 10 times more fluid than normal.
Increase the flow through the lymph nodes, filtering out waste products, dead cells, excess proteins and toxins from the tissues.
Increase the production of lymphocytes, thereby increasing the body’s ability to fight infections.
Activate the parasympathetic response, producing a body-wide relaxation effect.
So how do these broad changes specifically affect the body? The most famous application for lymph drainage is its effectiveness in treating edema and lymphedema. However, this therapy is profoundly effective for supporting our health overall. The Chikly Health Institute lists more than 100 indications for lymph drainage, from relieving pain to regulating digestion to treating skin conditions. “The curriculum has evolved, since we started,” says Dr. Bruno Chikly. “We have seen over 10,000 students and have developed both a lymphedema and non-lymphedema certification.” Their training includes applications for organs, joints, trigger points and fascial restrictions.
Isabelle Mender, a massage therapist in Eugene, Ore., gives herself a lymphatic boost seasonally. “During hay fever season, I usually treat myself twice a day. The treatments help to alleviate my sinus congestion, runny, itchy eyes and overall inflammation in my head.” David Doubblestein, a Lymph Drainage Therapy Instructor, uses lymphatic self-care to prevent illness and treat injury. “At the first sign of a cold, I do lymph drainage on myself and typically avoid the illness,” said Doubblestein. “I’ve also smashed my fingers more than once. (I admit I’m not the most graceful with tools.) Draining the area gets rid of the pain and throbbing sensation, and quickly too.” However, Doubblestein stresses that you don’t need to be sick or injured to practice lymphatic self-care. “I personally love the neck sequence anytime. In particular, it’s an excellent finish to yoga practice. You can do the neck sequence when you’re relaxing in corpse pose, and it puts your body in a parasympathetic state.” Mender agrees, “it’s a great way to simply chill out!”
Self Care Protocol
The lymph nodes are the powerhouses of the lymphatic system, and you have more than 500, located at pivotal points along your lymphatic vessels. The majority of your lymph nodes are located in the neck, armpits, abdomen and groin. These are the areas we’ll be addressing in this simplified self-care protocol. Stimulating the main lymph nodes of the body has a global effect on the lymphatic system, increasing lymph flow body-wide.
As massage therapists, we spend our days caring for others and often arrive home too tired to take care of ourselves. You can make for yourself lymphatic drainage. It’s gentle work, so it doesn’t strain over-tired hands and you can cleanse the main lymph nodes in just 15 minutes, which is plausible at the end of a long workday.
Lymph drainage is very different from traditional massage therapy. Here are some things to know:
Your touch needs to be very light, so light your mind will tell you it can’t possibly be effective, especially if you’re used to deep massage. However, 70% of the lymphatic vessels are located just underneath the skin. If you use too much pressure, you bypass these vessels. The lighter the touch, the more powerful the effect on the lymphatic system.
You’re not gliding across the skin. Rather, you’re very lightly stretching the skin. The lymphatic vessels are attached to the skin with small elastic fibers. When you stretch the skin, you’re manually pumping the lymphatic vessels simultaneously.
The stretch will always be in the direction that the lymph flows normally, and it’s important to lift your hands off the skin at the end of the stretch. Otherwise, you’re simply moving the lymph back and forth.
The lymphatic rhythm is slow. Take three full seconds to stretch the skin. Release your touch completely for three seconds. Then, repeat.
This self-care protocol is based on the Chikly Method. Techniques taught by other schools may vary slightly.
Step 1: Clavicle (Collarbone)
Hand Placement: Place your fingertips at the base of your neck, on the superior edge of your clavicle. Direction of Stroke: Using the lightest touch possible, stretch your skin medially, toward the sternal notch. This is a slow, three-second stretch. Release your touch completely for three seconds. Repeat four more times.
Step 2: Back Chain (Trapezius)
Hand Placement: Place the pads of your fingers on top of the trapezius muscle at the back of your shoulders. Direction of Stroke: Using the lightest touch possible, stretch your skin in a curving motion, laterally toward your outer shoulders and then slightly forward. Picture a candy cane. The long part of the candy cane is the stretch laterally across your trapezius muscle, then finish the stretch forward, like the hook on a candy cane. The total stretching movement lasts three seconds. Release your touch completely for three seconds, and then repeat four more times.
Step 3: Neck Hug
Hand Placement: Although this photo looks a bit like a choking hold, this hand position is very light, more like a butterfly’s wings. Place the pads of your fingers on your sternocleido-mastoid muscles. The rest of your hands shouldn’t touch your neck at all. In fact, there should be a gap between your hands and the front of your throat. Direction of Stroke: Using the lightest touch possible, stretch the skin over your SCM muscle directly down (inferior), toward your clavicle. This is a slow, three-second stretch. Release your touch completely for three seconds. Repeat four more times.
Step 4: Spinal Chain
Hand Placement: Place the pads of your fingers along the sides of your neck. Direction of Stroke: Using the lightest touch possible, stretch your skin slightly forward (anterior) and then down (inferior) toward the clavicle. The total stretching movement lasts three seconds. Release your touch completely for three seconds, and then repeat four more times.
Step 5: Waterwheel
Hand Placement: This is a small but very important lymph node area. The entire head and face drain through these nodes. Place the pads of two fingers behind your earlobe. You’ll feel a soft spot. That’s the waterwheel. Direction of Stroke:
Stretch the skin over the waterwheel directly down (inferior). It’s a small area, so the stretching movement will be short – approximately one inch. Stretch for three seconds, release for three seconds, and then repeat four more times.
Rinse the Neck
Now that you’ve opened up all the lymph nodes of the neck, it’s important to encourage free flow back to the clavicle. To do this, repeat the steps in reverse order (4, 3, 2 and 1). Then continue on to step 6 below.
Step 6: Axilla (Armpits)
Hand Placement: Lift your left arm slightly, and place the fingertips of your right hand in the peak of your left axilla (armpit). This is a very important region. The lymph of your arm, breast and part of your torso drain through here.
Direction of Stroke: Gently push inward, toward the center of your body. You are encouraging lymph flow back to your heart. Gently push in for three seconds, release for three seconds, and repeat four more times. Be sure and repeat this process for your opposite arm.
Relax the Abdomen
The next steps treat the lymphatic vessels of the deep abdomen. They are located beneath the abdominal muscles, so it is helpful to relax those muscles first. This can be done through deep belly breathing, or a few minutes of massage, your choice. After you have relaxed your abdomen, continue to step 7.
Step 7: Cisterna Chyli
Hand Placement: Place the pads of your fingertips on the center of your abdomen, between your rib cage and navel. The rest of your hand is lifted off your skin, so that your fingertips are the only part of your hand touching your abdomen.
Direction of Stroke: Gently push inward and upward. The pressure here is a little bit deeper. The rhythm, however, is the same: a three-second stretching movement; release for three seconds; repeat four more times.
Step 8: Abdominal “V”
Hand Placement: Place your hands flat on both sides of your lower abdomen. They’ll form the letter, “V.” Direction of Stroke: Gently push inward, and then upward on a diagonal, toward the sternum. (The movement is supero-medial.) The movement is a three-second deep stretch; release for three seconds; repeat four more times.
Step 9: Inguinals (Crease of Leg)
Hand Placement: Bend your knee and feel the angle that forms between your leg and pelvis. Place your fingertips on this crease.
Direction of Stroke: The pressure here is very gentle again, because these lymph nodes are just under the skin. Stretch the skin upward (superior). The length of the stretch is short – approximately one inch. Stretch for three seconds; release for three seconds; repeat four more times. Be sure and repeat this process for your opposite leg.
Rinse Back to the Heart
Now that you’ve opened up all the lymph nodes of the abdomen, it’s important to encourage free flow back to the heart. Repeat steps 8, 7 and then finish with step 1.
The same contraindications that apply for massage therapy also apply for lymph drainage. Professional course curriculum goes into these in more detail.
Bruno Chikly, MD, DO. Silent Waves: Theory and Practice of Lymph Drainage Therapy, 2nd ed. (Scottsdale: I.H.H. Publishing, 2004).