This is the third installment in our "Myth"conceptions About Lymph Massage series (full list here). Today we're going to take a look at the myth that Lymph Massage removes toxins... and of course the counter-myth that it doesn't. As always, there is some truth on both sides and your answer is somewhere in the middle.
Let's get to it!
[Hold on and let me get my eyeroll out of the way]
Lymphatic Drainage (LD) does NOT remove “toxins”!
It also does not improve the lymph system or make it stronger!
It bugs to me to no end to see so many websites, even therapists! [ involuntary additional eyeroll ] talk about toxins and getting lymphatic massage to “remove them”. There's only a small amount of truth in that and even that is based on a big misunderstanding about how the lymphatic system works.
Most "toxins" aren't what you think they are
First, there are few poisons or heavy metals or pharmaceuticals that are maliciously hanging out in your tissues wreaking havoc and poisoning your life. Your body is pretty darn good at dealing with that kind of thing. And if there was, LD won’t get rid of them much more effectively than your regular physiological processes (i.e. life).
As we'll talk about in a minute, LD doesn't really stir up the pot to get that stuff out of the system.
IF you live a sedentary lifestyle (you don’t move much) or have a condition that reduces circulation, then the removal of waste and chemicals will be slower, maybe even dramatically so, but it will still happen. The only way that “toxins” would build up in the body is if toxic load increases faster than drainage occurs – and then you’d have real problems like bed sores and necrotic (dead) tissue.
If a “toxin” doesn’t get cleaned out by exercise, lymph massage won’t do anything for it.
Lymph Massage facilitates the removal of Metabolic Wastes
What LF does do is help your body to move stuff through the system faster so it can get processed and all that. Normal stuff like metabolic wastes, proteins, dead cells, immune cells, and so on – doesn’t sound so toxic now, does it? Maybe there is some of that toxic stuff in there if your body is really, really clogged up, but not in anyone close to normal. And if there was genuinely toxic material stuck in the body, often your body is actively trying to keep it there so it doesn't circulate and do harm somewhere important.
By the way, that is what lymph is – fluid and then the material it is transporting – cells, proteins, waste.
It may help to think of garbage removal where you live. As long as the service comes by on time, you don’t have a problem.
If they’re late by a day or two, usually it’s not too bad – you might have had extra room in the bin (slack) or have an extra bag outside (minor overflow).
If they are late by a week (or if you forget to put the bin out :), now you’re starting to have a real problem. If it goes on longer, a serious problem...
Get the idea?
But, if you have a trash bin size (capacity) that covers a week, would a truck coming every day solve much of a problem for you? Would you even notice?
Lymph Massage does promote the removal of things your body wants to get rid of
Now metabolic wastes do need to get collected, processed and sent to where they need to go. LD does help with this uptake and movement. As far as “improving” lymph flow, if your lymph system is already flowing well and quickly, this won’t improve it any further and make it superhuman or anything.
All LD will do is increase an already compromised flow.
It prevents stagnation or slow flow.
The difference between regular massage and Lymph Massage when it comes to toxins
We'll talk about this in more detail with other myths too, but there is a HUGE difference between traditional, or regular, massage techniques (MT) and Lymph Massage (LD).
Many many many massage therapists will claim that MT moves lymph and they're just plain wrong! For a few of reasons.
- Lymph is the term for fluid and material IN the lymphatic system and MT has little to no affect on actual lymph. It affects the stuff that may become lymph if it moves into the lymphatic system.
- MT techniques are too heavy - the pressure used in traditional massage techniques actually collapse lymphatic structures instead of opening them. While they do move skin, much of that movement is offest by the pressure.
- What MT does is to move and deform muscles and connective tissue (myofascia) more than anything else. If there is stagnant material in an area, MT can stir it up, but that doesn't mean it ends up in the lymph system or increases lymph flow - it just means there may be more trash. And that trash could just lodge somewhere else instead of being "removed"
I've spoken with many of my patients who had received massage that they were told was lymph massage or lymph drainage and it was nothing of the sort!
If it feels like a "regular" massage, it isn't lymph massage!
On the other hand, Lymph Massage is completely the opposite. Where regular massage stirs up junk without stimulating removal, LD stimulates removal without stirring up more junk!
- You don't need LD when there isn't a lot of waste material to get rid of.
- You don't get regular massage therapy to get rid of lymph.
A Final Example (or two)
Let’s use a storm drain as an example. If that drain isn’t clogged and you’re getting a light shower, is pushing water into the drain or enlarging the drain itself going to remove water any better? Of course not. It’s not overwhelmed by a light rain anyway.
On the other hand, if the drain is clogged, will unclogging it help the water flow? Of course! If you’re getting a hurricane of rain, will larger drains and giving the water a place to go help it to clear out faster? Absolutely.
That’s what LD does. It helps the lymph flow.
If it’s already flowing well, it won’t do much of anything for you (but it won’t hurt either, except maybe your wallet if you’re paying for it). If it’s not flowing well, LD will enhance the flow and help it to clear faster.
Another way to look at it? Don’t see it as speeding up lymph flow, look at it as trying to prevent it from being slowed down.
Another analogy is a freeway. If there is little to no traffic on the road, there really isn’t anything impeding you and you can go as fast as you want (within the speed limit, right?).
However, if there is lots of traffic, there’s all kinds of things keeping you from going as fast as you might want – cars in front of you, merge lanes, people stopped at exit ramps, accidents, just too many darn cars… LD is like getting the traffic jam to clear up faster.
Which brings us to misery as well (nice segue, huh?).
Traffic jams are miserable. So are the things that LD helps – swelling, inflammation, pain, slow healing, and so on.
If you’re sitting there reading this and you’re not in misery from a surgery, injury, accident, or illness, then honestly you’re not in the right frame of mind to appreciate how valuable it is to have anything that makes the suffering a little bit better (or a lot).
Which leads me to one of the most touching experiences I had as a therapist and addresses Myth 4 about LF.