By Denise Theobald
Often, people who observe a lymphatic massage session say, "It looks like you are barely doing anything!" Yes, this is true; lymphatic massage requires a very light touch and lacks the long, sweeping strokes of traditional Swedish massage or the deep mechanical strokes of other techniques. It's rather boring to watch, actually. However, this light touch is the very thing that can make this specific work quite difficult for massage practitioners to perform effectively. Surprised? To understand why, it's important to review some basics about the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is a major player in immune function and is comprised of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, lymph fluid, and key organs like the spleen and liver. The role of the lymphatic system is to remove excess fluids and wastes from the body's tissues by filtering the fluids through lymph nodes and dumping the filtered fluids back into the circulatory system. The lymphatic system is superficial, with lymphatic vessels situated in the dermis layer of the skin, and many of the body's lymph nodes are located not much farther from the surface.
Unlike the circulatory system which is a two-way system through which the contents (blood) are pumped by the heart, the lymphatic system is a one-way system in which the contents (lymph fluid) are pumped through lymphatic vessels as a result of skeletal muscle contractions. No skeletal movement and limited joint compression equals very little movement on the part of the lymphatic vessels, so the lymphatic systems of animals who are less mobile due to injury, illness, surgery, or advanced age are unable to work effectively. However, we as therapists can mimic the pumping action of lymphatic vessels to assist the body's lymphatic system and help boost immune function. By using very light pressure to stretch the skin and a slight pumping action, we mimic the pumping of the vessels. This is where the challenge comes for many massage therapists. Using too much pressure (more than roughly one to four ounces) will actually collapse the lymphatic vessels and be counterproductive. Additionally, keen palpation skills along with good body mechanics and patience are key skills one must have to perform lymphatic massage.
When done properly, lymphatic massage removes excess fluids from body tissues, helps to boost immune function, detoxifies the body, enhances blood and oxygen flow, and alleviates pain. The more cellular wastes and excess fluids that can be removed from the tissues, the more blood and nutrients can reach the tissues and nourish them at the cellular level. Lymphatic massage is also soothing, allowing dogs to fully relax and willingly accept the work.
It's the gentle nature of this type of massage that makes it so challenging for many therapists to perform effectively, but if we keep in mind the important principle that "less is more," that boring is good, we can help our canine clients immensely through the powerful work of lymphatic massage.
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