Sports massage – the lymphatic system
Practitioners carrying out or following a training course in sports massage should be aware of the lymphatic system and how it works, along with the potential benefits of lymphatic drainage.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system comprises a network of tissues, vessels and organs that works alongside the cardiovascular system.
It includes lymph nodes and nodules, lymphatic capillaries and vessels, spleen, thymus, tonsils and adenoids.
Lymph nodes are strategically placed around the body. They produce lymphocytes, which filter harmful substances from the lymph fluid and destroy them before they reach the blood stream. Lymph nodules are found in the upper respiratory tract, urinary tract and small intestines. Lymphatic capillaries and vessels help to transport fluid around the body, with valves to prevent backward flow.
The spleen is an organ found above the left kidney, which filters and stores blood. While it’s possible to live without a spleen, the person will be more prone to infection. The thymus is a gland located above the heart; it protects the body against autoimmunity by storing special white blood cells called lymphocytes.
The tonsils are a group of lymphatic cells in the pharynx providing a line of defence against undesirable elements entering through the mouth, and the adenoids are found behind the nasal cavity; they generally shrink and disappear by adulthood.
What is its function?
The lymphatic system helps to:
- Remove excess fluid from the tissues and maintain the body’s fluid balance
- Prevent infection by filtering fluid and destroying pathogens
- Maintain blood viscosity and promote vascular homeostasis – the distribution of blood to where it’s needed at different times, eg during exercise or after eating
- Aid digestion by absorbing lipids from the small intestine
Excess fluid and metabolic waste in the body drains into the lymphatic capillaries and is carried in lymph fluid through the lymph vessels to be expelled from the body.
Which sports massage techniques are used?
Techniques that can work on the lymphatic system include compression, effleurage and skin rolling.
As the majority of lymph vessels are found close to the surface of the skin (see our blog on The Structure and Function of the Skin), they are accessible even with light massage.
What are the benefits of sports massage for the lymphatic system?
It’s worth noting that different sports massage techniques can have very different effects on the lymphatic system.
However, the right sports massage technique may stimulate the lymphatic system, increasing lymph flow and lymphatic drainage.
This should help to relax the subject and leave them feeling less fatigued; other benefits can include:
- Improved circulation
- Reduced DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
- Reduced swelling after exercise or injury
- Relieving or resolving acute pain
- Improved recovery/healing after surgery
- Prevention of oedema and lymphedema