A Strong therapy, with a soft touch

A Strong therapy, with a soft touch

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(1) Irish Independent Newspaper Sunday, (March 17th 2008).

A strong Therapy, With a Soft Touch

By Niamh Hooper

Monday March 17 2008

It’s hard to believe that a massage with so delicate a touch could be getting dramatic results with some cancer survivors, but less is definitely more when it comes to manual lymphatic drainage (MLD).
A specialised form of massage, MLD uses a very gentle, rhythmical pumping and stroking technique to stimulate the functioning of the body’s lymphatic system and improve lymph drainage, thus enhancing the immune system.

Commonly known as the waste disposal system of the body, in that it removes toxins through the bloodstream and colon, the lymphatic system is often referred to as the second circulatory system. But, unlike the principle circulatory system, it has no pump (like the heart) to move the lymph fluids throughout the body.

In the absence of a pump, the optimal functioning of the lymphatic system relies on exercise, diaphragmatic breathing, skincare such as skin-brushing and manual lymphatic drainage.
In Germany and Austria, MLD is a key ingredient in a ‘wellness’ programme in which people go for two weeks of treatments in the springtime to boost their immune system and stay healthy. Not so in Ireland.
Dublin-based MLD therapist Siobhan O’Reilly says most of the people coming to her are looking for relief and the management of an incurable condition called lymphoedema, where the lymphatic drainage system of the body is not functioning properly and fluid builds up in the limbs.

Some people are born with it (primary lymphoedema), while others develop secondary lymphoedema after cancer treatments such as a mastectomy, prostect-omy or radiotherapy.
On going to Siobhan for a treatment, the person before me is a breast cancer survivor.

Pauline had a mastectomy and had 42 ancillary lymph nodes removed in May 2006. She went through intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “A few months after I started my treatments, I began to swell and it got progressively worse. Before I found MLD by accident, my arm had swollen to three times the normal size and my clothes no longer fitted.

“When it comes to cancer aftercare and advice, very little exists at hospital level. A lot of people simply don’t know where to turn and the hospitals are not investing any funding into providing patients with access to Complete Decongestive Therapy, of which MLD is a critical component. “Yet statistics say that up to 49pc of women get some degree of lymphoedema after breast cancer.” After Pauline had two intense treatments of MLD and bandaging, she said she noticed a “monstrous difference — the swelling had reduced by about 40pc”.

Having spoken to someone requiring the treatment, I feel a bit of a fraud undergoing MLD but am intrigued. Lying on the bed, Siobhan begins massaging my neck, behind my ears and under my chin with feather-light strokes, while asking me to breath deeply into my abdomen. She then moves to my sternum, tummy and back up to my arms, groin and behind my knees. She finishes with my face, around my eyes, and across my nose, which is sensitive as I’ve been blocked there recently.

“The lightness of touch is essential. If too much pressure is applied in these specific areas it will increase blood flow into the area, which is not the objective. Manual lymphatic drainage is designed to redirect the lymph fluid from the swollen area just underneath the skin to healthier nodes of the lymph system that can drain it,” Siobhan explains.

Verdict: Not having symptoms for which MLD is normally recommended, for me it was a delicate and relaxing treatment. The real difference I noticed was the increased frequency of bathroom visits and increased thirst. The real verdict was when Pauline removed her bandages to see about 40pc reduction in swelling after only two treatments.

A session with Siobhan O’Reilly costs €75. To make an appointment call 087 744 8782

The Facts

Manual lymphatic drainage was developed by Dr Emil Vodder and his wife Estrid in the 1930s to treat chronic sinusitis and other immune disorders. When working with patients with chronic colds, they noticed they had swollen lymph nodes. Studying the lymph system further, they developed careful hand movements to trigger lymph movement.

MLD Ireland, a professional association for MLD practitioners here, was established in 1997.

The Evidence

Several studies have found MLD to be an effective component in the treatment of lymphoedema. Patients treated with complete decongestive therapy — comprising MLD, bandaging, exercise and skincare — showed a significant reduction in the fluid volume of the limb.

MLD is also effective in alleviating swelling in pregnancy and other chronic inflammatory conditions.

– Niamh Hooper

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