Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage / Fluid Retention for health

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The lymphatic system is a network of delicate tubes throughout the body. It drains fluid (called lymph) that has leaked from the blood vessels into the tissues and empties it back into the bloodstream via the lymph nodes.

The main roles of the lymphatic system include:

  • managing the fluid levels in the body
  • reacting to bacteria
  • dealing with cancer cells
  • dealing with cell products that otherwise would result in disease or disorders
  • absorbing some of the fats in our diet from the intestine.

The lymph nodes and other lymphatic structures like the spleen and thymus hold special white blood cells called lymphocytes. These can rapidly multiply and release antibodies in response to bacteria, viruses, and a range of other stimuli from dead or dying cells and abnormally behaving cells such as cancer cells.

The lymphatic system and fluid balance

The blood in our blood vessels is under constant pressure. We need that to push nutrients (food the cells need), fluids and some cells into the body’s tissues to supply those tissues with food, oxygen and defence.

All of the fluids and its contents that leak out into the tissues (as well as waste products formed in the tissues, and bacteria that enter them through our skin) are removed from them by the lymphatic system.

When the lymphatic system does not drain fluids from the tissues properly, the tissues swell, appearing puffy and uncomfortable. If the swelling only lasts for a short period it is called oedema. If it lasts longer (more than about three months) it is called lymphoedema.

Common problems involving the lymphatic system can be separated into those related to:

  • infection
  • disease
  • destruction or damage to the lymphatic system or its nodes.

Those related to infection include:

  • glandular fever – symptoms include tender lymph nodes
  • tonsillitis – infection of the tonsils in the throat
  • Crohn’s disease – inflammatory bowel disorder.

Those related to disease include:

  • Hodgkin’s disease – a type of cancer of the lymphatic system.

Those related to malformation or destruction or damage to the lymphatic system or its nodes include:

  • primary lymphoedema – when the lymphatic system has not formed properly. May present as a limb or part body swelling at birth, or may develop at puberty or later in life
  • secondary lymphoedema – When the lymphatic system is damaged by surgery or radiotherapy associated with the treatment of cancer, when the soft tissues are damaged by trauma, or when the lymphatic system has some other cause of structural or functional impairment.

Fluid retention is seen as swelling in one or more parts of the body where fluid gets trapped. It is most common in the ankles and feet. If you have symptoms of fluid retention, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to check the cause and whether any treatment is needed. There are ways you can help yourself.

Fluid retention is also called oedema (or edema in the US) or water retention. It occurs when parts of the body swell due to the build-up of trapped fluid.

You may have fluid retention if you have:

  • swelling or puffiness under the skin
  • skin that looks or feels tight or shiny
  • skin that indents when pressed, or does not bounce back after being pressed for a few seconds
  • discoloured skin
  • aching limbs or joints
  • weight gain
  • a noticeable increase in size of your abdomen

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

If you have shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or chest pain, see your doctor immediately as these can be signs of pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs) which needs to be treated right away.

Fluid retention is usually seen as a sign of another problem. But it can also cause pain, damage to the skin and difficulty with walking.

What causes fluid retention?

Some people get fluid retention due to illnesses like:

  • heart conditions such as heart failure or cardiomyopathy
  • chronic lung disease
  • thyroid problems
  • malnutrition
  • kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver or an underactive thyroid

Certain medications cause fluid retention, such as:

  • some antidepressants
  • some heart and blood pressure medicines
  • corticosteroids
  • the pill
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • some hormone replacement therapies

A problem in one part of your arm or leg can cause fluid retention further down your arm or leg, if you have:

  • a problem with your lymphatic system, which drains fluid from tissues
  • a vein condition, such as deep vein thrombosis
  • the build-up of fat, usually in the legs
  • a burn or other type of injury

You can also get fluid retention if you are pregnant, overweight or malnourished.

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