Although osteopaths primarily work with the musculoskeletal system, we can also help to influence the nervous and circulatory systems. Circulation of blood does not just involve veins and arteries, but the lymphatic system too.
Circulation Basics: The Lymphatic System
When blood enters cells, some blood returns to veins, but some fluid separates and becomes lymph. This fluid plays a role in immune function, as demonstrated by the effect of the “glands” that swell when you are under the weather. The glands are actually lymph nodes. These are enlarged areas along the course of the lymphatic system that house white blood cells and filter the lymph. When a threat is detected, the glands can swell as they demand more of the immune system. You may notice that the nodes on your neck swell when you have a cold. This is because the nodes here drain the face, head, and throat. The enlargement shows the nodes fighting the infection.
When lymph nodes are removed, such as when metastatic cancer is detected locally, the lymph can back up. A lymphectomy may be performed as part of breast cancer treatment, with the nodes in the armpit being removed. These nodes are part of the system that drains the arm, so the disruption of the lymphectomy can cause swelling throughout the arm.
After the surgery, you can expect rehabilitation and exercises. You may receive some hands-on treatment before you are left to complete your exercises on your own. Lymphatic massage aims to temporarily drain the backed-up fluid. Although it will return, the removal of old fluid is good for local tissue health. As part of your rehabilitation, you may also be given compression garments. These work to prevent the build up of fluid in the first place.
When you are still recovering from treatment, or if you have mobility issues, these exercises can be hard to do alone. Your osteopath may be able to help support you with this, whether you want to improve your mobility so you can do the exercises, or if you want someone to do the exercises for you.
The swelling that develops after some injuries is also under the realm of the lymphatic system. Although your first instinct might be to put ice on it, this is no longer advised as standard. Swelling is a reaction to the injury. The fluid brings with it cells to fight potential infection, and substances to clear dead tissue. When the fluid is fresh, it also contains nutrients to provide a boost to the tissues that need to heal. Problems arise when swelling is present for too long. The nutrients are used up and replaced with waste. If the fluid is not refreshed, the waste products can negatively impact the health of the area. This decline is compounded by the lack of new nutrients. So the swelling is useful, but only while the fluid is there briefly.
Osteopathy and Circulation
Osteopathy can help with your post injury swelling. Gentle techniques to encourage swelling back into circulation can help to shift the waste. The body will send new fluid to the area if it is still needed. We may be able to give you exercises to do at home to continue refreshing the fluid.
As mentioned before, we can support you with lymphoedema drainage too. Whether you need someone to perform the exercises for you, or get you to a point where you can do them yourself, your osteopath can be your first port of call.