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What is the Lymphatic System and how can self treatment help my pain?

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

By Ana Soulia, PT, DPT | Inertia Physiotherapy Missoula, MT

Your lymphatic system is an under appreciated system in your body. It is a comprehensive network of 100,000 miles of lymphatic vessels and about 700 nodes. Lymphatic vessels are found throughout your body. The nodes are concentrated in areas that are vulnerable to foreign invaders. This explains why 300 of them are in your face and neck guarding the opening of your mouth, nose, eyes and ears. Lymph nodes are rich with white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes evaluate and destroy outside invaders such as viruses and bacteria that enter the nodes. Lymph fluid is colorless and comprised of 90% water and 10% waste, protein and hormones. You have about 15 liters of lymph in your body, that's 3x more

lymph than blood. You produce about 3 liters of fluid per day.

The lymphatic system is essentially your sewer system. It collects toxins, hormones, metabolic waste, foreign invaders and excess fluid throughout your body and delivers it to the nodes for inspection by the lymphocytes. It eventually makes its way back to the circulatory system via two large lymphatic ducts under your collar bones. The Lymphatic System flows in a continuous loop in one direction. It does not have a pump to drive the fluid like the circulatory system. Lymph fluid is pushed along by muscle contraction, movement and diaphragmatic breathing. Back flow is prevented by a correct pressure gradient in your body and a series of valves. Due to the nature of the system and what it carries, it can get bogged down and this creates areas of poor flow. The result of a bogged down lymph system is surrounding tissues and the body can become toxic and inflamed. The interstitial tissue may become acidic and this hyper-sensitizes the superficial nerves to pain. Areas of poor lymphatic flow are often painful to pressure. Pain and tenderness can also yield loss of motion, strength and/or endurance.

There are a variety of reasons your Lymphatic system may be under performing. It can be affected by an acute condition like an illness, injury or infection. It can also be related to chronic conditions such as autoimmune diseases. Lymphatic issue are commonly associated with gut issues. You can assess your Lymphatic system by inspecting your body for areas of swelling and assess pressure tolerance in specific areas. These areas are zones of an increased number of lymph nodes. {See the chart below for details}. You should be able to press firmly in these areas and feel pressure but no pain. If you find one or more areas of pain or you note swelling your lymphatic system could use some help.

The good news is, it's easy to care for your Lymphatic System at home in just a few minutes per day. First tip, drink plenty of water. Remember, lymph is 90% water. If you're dehydrated, this impacts the ability of fluid to migrate easily. Next, perform self lymphatic massage daily. {See below for details}. Additional lymphatic support includes regular movement and variety gains you bonus points. Last but not least, make sure you can effectively breathe with your diaphragm. There are a lot reasons that your diaphragm may not be working efficiently. If this isn't natural for you or you find you can't perform a good diaphragmatic breath, I recommend you seek professional help to find out why. Breathing is an absolutely fundamental action that plays a role in supporting essentially all of your body systems. Many people {especially those in pain} don't breathe well. It's often one of the first things we work on restoring with our physical therapy clients. Keep reading to learn how and where to do at home lymphatic massage.

Lymphatic vessels in your skin are fairly superficial and they do not have the same turgor effect that keeps the vessels open with deep pressure. This means that the pressure used for treatment is light. If pressure is too deep, it compromises the lymph flow. The massage can be done with your hands or a brush. You can purchase a "dry brush" for a few dollars at your local drug store. For the smaller regions such as your face, you can use a toothbrush.

In all of the places outlined below, rub your skin first light and fast then in circles for between 20-30 seconds. You can sub this step or follow with your brush(es). In most cases the points outlined are on both sides of your body, so treat both sides. On places that are directly over bone, you can also utilize percussion. For example, light tapping over your sternum. If using a dry brush you can follow local node stimulation with broader strokes toward your heart.

Because the Lymphatic system is a closed loop, you may not know exactly where the restriction is. This is why it's best to treat the whole body regardless of symptoms. If you found tender points or swelling on assessment, you can reassess them for decreased pain and increased pressure tolerance after treatment.

I recommend you perform this routine daily at least until your pain or swelling subsides. This is also a safe practice for ongoing self care to maintain your Lymphatic health.

As your lymph health improves, your body becomes less toxic, your pH can normalize and your pain sensitivity can reduce. Treating your Lymphatic system well, can have significant positive impacts on multiple systems. Give it a try as a way to compliment other treatments and lifestyle changes to help optimize your overall health!

{note: this type of lymphatic massage is not meant to substitute professional manual lymphatic drainage in cases of lymphedema. If you have severe lymphedema or have reason to be concerned about this due to cancer treatment, seek professional assistance from a licensed lymphedema specialist}


About the Author- Ana Soulia is a Dr. of Physical Therapy and founder of Inertia Physiotherapy in Missoula Montana. She specializes in treating complex problems and persistent pain issues. She is passionate about helping her clients move well and enjoy an active Montana Lifestyle.

Her Integrative Approach to PT emphasizes the need to evaluate the whole person in order to understand how all the systems contribute to pain and nagging injuries. If you are in the Missoula area and you'd like to know more about Ana and how her practice is different please visit


1001 S 4th St W Suite 4

Missoula, MT 59801


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