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by Cuyler Hudson, PT, DPT, FAFS

Posted in Blog.

May 26th, 2020

Learn to Love Your Lymph System

What if I told you there was a highly sophisticated waste-management system located within your body? And what if I told you this system was charged with taking all of the garbage that your cells produce on a daily basis (and that’s a lot!), and filtering out the harmful things? Sound important? Well it is! This system is called your lymphatic system, and although it’s seldom discussed with athletes, it has HUGE implications for disease, recovery, and performance. 


Let’s start with how this system works. You have a whole network of lymph vessels in your body (as seen in the picture). These vessels start right where your arteries and veins meet, where all the oxygen and nutrient-rich blood in your body is delivered to your tissue, and your veins take that used-up blood and start the journey back to the lungs to get some more of that good stuff. The lymph vessels take up about 20% of the used up blood, and sends it to little processing plants called lymph nodes. These are those little bumps under your jaw that get swollen when you’re sick. You also have nodes located in your groin, abdomen, and armpits. Each node is a little battleground where bad bacteria, damaged cells, and other toxic material is located and destroyed by special cells called lymphocytes. Once the blood is free of this hazardous material, it’s put back into circulation with the rest of your blood. 


It’s easy to see why this is important for your immune system, but what does it have to do with rehab or performance? Well, guess what happens when you sprain your ankle or develop runner’s knee, or have a really hard workout…a TON of cellular debris and waste materials are generated. Any damage to the tissue causes an increase in the amount of fluid in the spaces between your cells, causing inflammation and swelling. This effectively shuts down the muscle and proprioceptors in the surrounding region (meaning your muscle will be weak and your body won’t know what’s happening in that area when you move). While it’s important to note that inflammation is a GOOD thing, as it brings with it all the cellular materials we need to rebuild healthy tissue, we don’t want it sticking around very long if we’re going to continue to exercise. The most common prescription for inflammation, icing, simply shuts down blood vessels to decrease inflammation, so the tissue is not getting the nutrients it needs! So what is supposed to get rid of that inflammation and let things get back to normal? Your lymph system! It plays the primary role of getting that inflammation out of the damaged area, cleaned up, and back into circulation without delaying the healing process. If your lymph doesn’t flow well, or gets backed up, it may take much longer to heal. Your lymph system also most likely is playing a role if you have had a chronic injury that just won’t go away, or even if you are constantly feeling a brain fog! No system works in isolation, and it’s time we start looking at how they all work together.


So how do we love our lymph? The first thing that’s important to note is that your lymph system doesn’t have a pump, it relies on the movement of our muscles to squeeze the vessels and push the lymph through the system. Sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day? Well that’s 10 hours your lymph isn’t moving. The solution? Get up! Take a break every hour for a 2-minute walk, some jumping jacks, air squats, pushups, practice your dance moves, anything works as long as you are moving! The other thing to do if you feel like your injury is taking a long time to recover is to start to perform daily manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). This method has been shown in a number of studies to be much more effective than the standard rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) protocol in reducing recovery time. It works by manually clearing your lymphatic pathways, starting at the closest nodes. So for a knee or ankle problem, start at the place right where your hip meets your pubic area. Gently use your fingers to grab the skin and stroke upward 10 times. Then move down the front of your thigh/shin, keeping the upwards stroking motion until you get to the painful area. Now that the lymph pathways are clear, work the opposite direction. Start right where your pain is and stroke upwards 10 times. Gradually perform the same strokes, moving upwards now towards the lymph nodes in your hip. You are working to stimulate a faster flow of the lymph, which in turn will help take all of that bad stuff around your injury, push it through your lymph system to filter and recirculate. 


So, in summary, yes, your lymph system does play a huge role in your knee or shoulder pain, and yes, there are things you can do about it! Learn to love you lymph and your body will love you back

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