miércoles, 17 de mayo de 2023

WHAT IS THE MAIN FUNCTION OF MANUAL LYMPHATIC DRAINAGE (MLD)? - What is the contribution of MLD to Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT)? - Lymphatic Vascular Disease - Pediatric and Primary Lymphedema - Secondary Lymphedema - Lymphostatic Elephantiasis - Lymphatic Filariasis/Podoconiosis - Best Practices Management Guideline / Treatment Protocol / Patient Care Pathway

To understand the principal functions of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) as a fundamental component of conservative treatment, it is important to review the basic notions regarding what is the lymphatic circulatory system, and what is Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT).


The Lymphatic system is part of the immune system and it helps to cope with infections. It is made up of a network of vessels that transport lymph (a clear fluid that transports nutrients and waste) and lymph glands (nodes) that filter the lymph fluid. Other lymphatic organs are the tonsils, liver, and spleen.

Although the body’s blood and lymph circulation are totally different hemodynamic mechanisms, they are mutually dependent and complementary circulatory systems. Whilst the blood circulation is pumped through the body by the heart, the lymphatic fluid is moved by the rhythmic contractions of the muscular walls of lymphangions, which are segmented portions of the lymph vessels separated by a valve on either side. The sequential, segment-to-segment contractions of the lymphangions are under the control of the autonomic nervous system, but can be augmented by external stimuli on the lymphatics. When damage occurs to the lymphatic system, drainage of interstitial fluid may become compromised, and the resulting lymph stasis causes chronic inflammation and the build-up of interstitial fluid known as “lymphedema”.


The lymphatic vascular system has many essential physiological functions, including maintenance of tissue fluid homeostasis by returning interstitial fluid to the blood, distributing nutrients and absorption of dietary lipids through mesenteric lymphatics, and filtering and destroying invading micro-organisms. The waste products are then expelled from the body via the urinary system. Dysfunction of the lymphatic system can lead to severe infections, disability, disfigurement, and loss of Quality of life (QoL) as can be assessed with the ICF model (International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health). Read more information about the signs, symptoms, and complications of lymphoedema HERE.


Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is the most effective non-surgical treatment for lymphedema, as it reduces the symptoms and improves patients’ functionality, mobility, and quality of life. CDT is the conservative multimodal treatment for lymphatic dysfunction.

Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) involves a two-phase intervention. In Phase 1 (intensive or reduction phase), which lasts two to four weeks, the goal is to improve skin integrity and reduce the amount of edema through compression bandaging and Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD). The therapist also instructs the patient on good skin care practices and prescribes decongestive exercises. In Phase 2 (maintenance phase), after the limb is sufficiently reduced in volume, the patient is then fitted with a compression garment, and the goal is to maintain the volume reductions achieved in Phase 1 through self-care strategies, lymph-reducing exercises, and the permanent use of compression garments.

Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is a combination of the following components:

  • Skincare,
  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD,
  • Multilayer Bandaging/Compression Garments (Compression Therapy),
  • Decongestive exercises.
  • Patient education ( patient basic self-help notions)
  • Compression Pumps (this is an optional adjuvant, and must be accompanied by Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) conducted by therapists at the specialist level).

It must be made clear that treatment without Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) does not represent CDT. Even though “Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT)” and “Decongestive Lymphatic Therapy (DLT)” are used synonymously in the medical literature, they don't represent the same treatment management focus. Read more information about the important differences between “Complete Decongestive Therapy” and “Decongestive Lymphatic Therapy" HERE.


To be clear on the concepts, “Compression Therapy” is used to describe the compression part of the therapy, whether it is bandaging, compression pumps, or a custom-fitted garment. The maximum reduction of edema volume is achieved by compression bandaging. Compression therapy helps reduce interstitial fluid by decreasing its formation and preventing lymph backflow into the interstitial space. Compression also assists the pumping action “muscle pump effect” of muscles by creating a resistance against which muscles can work. Compression therapy in Phase 1 is done using a specialized bandaging technique with low-stretch bandages called multi-layered bandaging, and compression therapy in Phase 2 of CDT, designed to maintain the volume reductions from the first phase, which is achieved by the use of a compression custom-fitted garment that is worn during the day. In some cases, compression bandages are worn at night.

Due to the possibility of lymph fluid displacement during treatment, it is important to take into account that compression therapy alone without Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD), or MLD performed incorrectly, can provoke the shift of fluid to adjacent previously non-affected areas. Isolated compression therapy of the extremities, particularly in those with lymphoedema also affecting the quadrants of the trunk, may increase swelling at the root of the extremity and may even lead to genital lymphedema. Prevention of lymph fluid displacement in upper and lower limbs is something basic and primordial. Only certified therapists at the specialist level should perform MLD in Phase 1(reduction phase). Read more information in the German Scientific  Consensus Document HERE.


Lymphedema is a disease of the skin due to lymphatic valve incompetence which causes inflammation and lymph fluid buildup. Whatever type of compression is applied to lymphatic edema, will have a consequent impact regarding volume and circumference reduction. Lymphatic volumetric reduction is primarily achieved by compression, and this compression is chiefly achieved with multi-layer bandaging. An important question is what happens to lymph fluid when it is submitted to compression, does it evaporate, is it absorbed by the bandages, or does it simply disappear? It is important to bear in mind that when Lymphatic edema is summited to compression the lymph fluid is displaced, and that is the precise reason why Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD) is so important. If lymphedema is summited to compression without MLD, the consequent shift of fluid can provoke a lymph fluid buildup in a previously non-affected area.

According to the German Scientific Society Guidelines, isolated application of single components is not recommended, and Complex Decongestive Therapy (CDT) should be used in its entirety. Isolated compression therapy of the extremities may increase swelling at the root of the extremity and may even lead to genital lymphoedema.


Unlike blood circulation, the lymphatic system has no central pump, such as the heart, to move fluid to the lymph glands, instead, it uses a combination of pressure differences, muscle contractions, and one-way valves to move the fluid. This is why Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD) is essential in the treatment of a non-functional lymphatic system.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) should be applied prior to compression therapy (multilayer bandages/compression pumps) and is one of the principal components of the conservative “Gold Standard” treatment plan known as Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). MLD is a specialized medical massage technique centered on the anatomy of the lymphatic system that helps promote lymphatic drainage. It should not be confused with a traditional common massage.

Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a specific hands-on therapy focused on the lymph vessels to help the flow of lymphatic fluid to move away from the swollen area. Therapy starts in the areas of the non-swollen parts of the body adjacent to the section that includes the affected limb or body part to open the well-working lymph nodes, making it possible for the fluid to move out of the affected area inducing a suction effect. The therapist continues with MLD in the swollen body parts to direct the fluid to the open lymph collectors and redirect lymph fluid toward functioning lymphatic territories. After proximal areas have been gently massaged, a more rhythmic massage is performed from the distal to the proximal part of the extremity. The gentle, rhythmic motions on the skin can also help to soften any hardened (fibrosis) tissue.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) goes along with compression bandaging to reduce limb volume, and compression garments to help keep the swelling down. MLD is not intended to be a stand-alone treatment option, and treatment with the intent of decongesting a limb should always be followed by compression bandages or garments. MLD is sometimes administered alone, particularly in areas where it is difficult to use compression therapy. Long-lasting therapeutic success depends on the effectiveness of the treatment chain consisting of a specialist doctor, lymph therapist, health care supplier, and the affected patient. Read more information about which is the best treatment for lymphedema HERE.


In the context of chronic lymphatic dysfunction, it is very important to note that only certified therapists at the specialist level should perform Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD). MLD takes many hours of training, and years of hands-on experience to become a skilled lymphedema therapist. MLD therapists are trained in the anatomy and physiology of the lymphatic system to facilitate lymph drainage of the vessels and have a profound knowledge of the disease. Patients should not have other types of massage on the affected lymphedema area.

Manual Lymphatic drainage (MLD) is not suitable for everyone, and there are situations where MLD must not be applied. Contraindications for MLD can be classified as general or region specific and include acute infection, cardiac edema, malignancies, acute deep vein thrombosis, renal failure, bronchial asthma, and uncontrolled hypertension. Patients must always refer to their healthcare professional first to make sure that MLD is right for them.

It should be noted that Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) and self-drainage (Simple Lymphatic Draingae-SLD) are not the same. The former is performed by a clinical specialist and the latter is applied by the patient himself. Self-drainage should not replace MLD in Phase 1 (intensive or reduction phase), given that if MLD is not performed in a correct and rigorous way before compression therapy (bandages/compression pumps), this can cause serious short or long-term side effects for patients such as the displacement of edema to adjacent previously unaffected areas. 

Read information about what are the strategies being used for discrediting manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) HERE


  • MLD stimulates and opens well-working lymph nodes and increases rhythmic contractions of the lymph vessels to enhance their activity.
  • MLD induces a suction 'call up' and 'reabsorption' effect where lymph is absorbed first in the initial lymphatics and then into larger lymph vessels.
  • MLD reroutes stagnant lymphatic fluid from the swollen area toward functioning lymphatic territories
  • MLD treats first functional and healthy lymph nodes, followed by proximal and contralateral areas and then ipsilateral and lymphoedematus areas.
  • MLD emphasizes the treatment of the anterior and posterior trunk in the early phases before the swollen limb is treated.
  • MLD helps prevent the displacement of lymph fluid to adjunct areas when lymphatic edema is submitted to compression therapy (bandages/compression pumps) for volumetric reduction.


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