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Massage (manual lymphatic drainage) treatment for lymphoedema

You can have a special type of massage to reduce swelling from lymphoedema. It’s called manual lymphatic draining or MLD.

There are different types of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) including Vodder, Leduc, Földi and Casley-Smith.

You should only have MLD from someone who has been trained in one of these types.

How it works

The aim of the massage is to move fluid from your swollen area into a place where the lymphatic system is working normally.

To do this, the specialist first massages and clears the area they want the fluid to drain into.

It might seem strange to have them massage your chest and neck if you have lymphoedema in your arm. But it means that the fluid has somewhere to drain to when they massage your arm.

How you have MLD

You usually lie down to have massage. But if you have lymphoedema in your head and neck, you sit up.

When you have the massage you feel a gentle pressure. It’s not a deep massage, because that would flatten the small lymph vessels so that the fluid can’t drain. The movements are slow and rhythmic so that the lymph vessels open up.

You may have MLD daily from Monday to Friday. Or 3 times a week, for about 3 weeks.

How many treatments you have depends on the type of MLD you have and what you need. Your specialist will also take into account the amount of swelling you have.

After the massage

The specialist may bandage the area. They use a specialist bandaging technique called multi layered lymphoedema bandaging. If it is not possible to use bandages, you may wear a compression garment.

Your lymphoedema specialist will regularly check on how well your treatment is working. They’ll look at whether the tissues are softening and how much the swelling is going down.

Once the swelling stops reducing, they’ll give you another compression garment to wear.

Remember that you are the person who will notice changes first. You need to talk to your specialist about how your treatment is working. Managing lymphoedema is very much about you and the specialist working together.

Simple lymphatic drainage

Simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) means that you learn how to do the massage yourself. It is sometimes called self massage.

A specialist needs to teach you how to do this. You may be taught to only massage in the areas where you don’t have lymphoedema. This frees up space for the lymph fluid to drain into from the swollen area.

You don’t massage the area where you have swelling. Massaging the swollen area is difficult to do. You will be shown how to massage the surrounding areas and can ask questions if anything is not clear.

You massage twice a day, for about 20 minutes each time. Only apply light pressure, as your lymphoedema specialist taught you.

When you should not have massage

There are some situations when you should not have massage or do self massage. Your lymphoedema specialist will tell you whether you can or can’t. Always check with them if you are not sure.

You may not be able to have MLD or SLD if you have any of the following:

  • an infection or inflammation in the swollen area
  • a blood clot
  • heart problems
  • active cancer in the area

If you are uncertain about having MLD or doing SLD, talk to your doctor or lymphoedema specialist.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.