Toe to head guide of how I understand the lymphatic system.
The very simplest way at looking at the lymphatic system is like using a garden hose. The water starts from the house shut off value and the other end is where the water comes out. This is a one way system. If some how the water went the opposite direction there is going to be a big mess in the house, right? Same goes for your body.
You’ve probably seen the tv commercials about the “expandable hose” that goes from 25 feet to 75 feet just by adding pressure to it. That is not the type of hose that I want you to think of. Instead lets go with the standard garden hose that is 25 feet and you spool it up or wind it up to organize it. Yes, the one that gets you all dirty after you drag it through the mud and then have to put it away. Hmmm… maybe I’ll try that expandable hose this year.
Anyhow, your lymphatic track pulls fluid from parts of your body and bring it all back to the heart. It’s a low pressure system and doesn’t have a pumping mechanism of it’s own. The muscles and movement of your body either help the fluid move along or restrict the flow. So here is the basic flow: Imagine you are standing and there is an imaginary line from your ankles to the back of your knees; from your knees into your inner thigh where your legs attach to your glutes. Then the direction changes from a vertical line to a horizontal line that goes from your inner thigh to over the adductors (groin/leg area) and into the front of the hip. The other horizontal line of the leg goes from the lateral (outside) part of your legs (hamstrings) into the glutes and up to the lower back. Here is where they both merge back together into the front of the body at your lower core and around the front side of your hip. From your anterior hips (front side), the lymphatic track rejoins both left and right sides of the body into the core and flows up to the bottom of your sternum and splits again into two different tracks on the left and right sides of the body. One track continues up the sternum and follows the pectoralis major muscle fibers and stays under the clavicle draining into your armpit. The other track goes from the bottom of your sternum laterally (horizontal) under the breast tissue (men and women both have it) and also drains into the armpit. From the armpit it goes between the rib cage and the scapula bone to the back of the neck, over the upper trap, and into the top area above the clavicle. Whew!, that was a mouth full.
The very short version: ankles, knees, groin, hips, core, ribs, armpit, posterior neck, and anterior neck.
What does this all mean? At the major intersecting points of the knees, hips, core, armpits, and neck are all areas that lack movement or have an excess. The most common issues is in a prolonged sitting posture. The more we sit, the more we slow the lymphatic flow and create more inflammation in the body. Why? If you put pressure on any part of the body for a long enough period of time you will push out the blood from that area. When you get up and that area gets new blood flow, your lymphatic system picks that up that old fluid and cycles it back through to the heart. It will go through your lymph nodes to make sure nothing bad is in there and return it to the heart. The issue is, while you are sitting your lymphatic track has a restriction in the hips (the major source of pooling inflammation) and lacks movement to move the fluids along. Along with tight clothing, belts, and the pressure from our stomachs sitting over our belts/waist lines, this all limits blood flow.
Have you ever noticed that our stomach and butt cheeks are almost always the coldest the longest? Why? Lack of blood flow. Same goes with the feet. They are a long way from the heart and there is always pressure on them unless we are laying down.
So back to the garden hose thought. When we first get a garden hose, it’s new and very stiff. After a couple of seasons, especially if you leave it outside or keep kinks in it over the winter, the next time you try and use it, the harder it is to get the water out of the end of it. Same goes with your body. The more restrictions we place on our body, the less amount of space is available to allow the lymphatic fluid to move.
Another problem with the hips and core, it’s the hardest to get the muscles working again. If you have inflammation in an area for an amount of time (different for each person and situation), the muscles in that area will shut off making it harder to engage good posture and you’ll feel more fatigue because your muscles are not being efficient. For the example of the hips, have you ever felt bloated? A lot of my clients that come in with lower back pain, cramping, or weakness generally have a feeling of tightness or a bloated feeling. The muscles that I find don’t work are the Rectus Abdominis (rectus abd), Glute Minimus (glute min), Lateral quads, and Tibialis anterior. Once I release the lymphatic system around the femoral artery, over the inguinal ligament, and wake up the rectus abd, the other muscles mentioned will wake up, minus the glute min. That will need additional work since it’s on the opposite side of the leg and on a different lymphatic track.
The other main area for women is where the bras sit on their body. While my client’s are laying down on their back we test how strong their ability is to lift their head off the table. If they can hold their head for 5 seconds without shaking, without any discomfort, and their rectus abd engages without having to do a crunch, then they typically have a good lymphatic track around the ribs. Most of them, and some guys too, can’t lift their head without struggling and either only come up a couple of inches or explain they feel some discomfort with some part of the back of the neck. After I release the lymphatic flow I’ll check the head lift again. Now, some will feel strong until I put light pressure on the lymph track along their sternal line, where their underwire usually sits, and into the armpit. The littlest pressure will create a huge lack of power with the head lift. This means the lymphatic flow is limited by the lack of power in the muscles and there is more work to be done to allow better lymph flow.
The final main area of limitation of the lymph flow is between the ribs and scapula. When you have poor posture and your shoulders are rounded forward, this places an irregular gaping between the scapula and ribs, causing a slowness of lymph flow. There is an exercise called a Serratus punch that you can lookup online and this movement will assist with the lymphatic flow. Many of my clients can push up but the shoulder returning to the table is where the weakness comes and some shaking. This shaking means the muscle is weak and once the muscle wakes up the shaking will be much less. Many also say the neck feels tighter when the shoulders are forward verse the feeling of looseness when they are back on the table.
The final overall process to return lymphatic flow to the heart is a track from the back side of the neck into the front side above the clavicle line. While I described this post as a toe to head direction, when I’m with a person I can’t just go from toe to head. I have to read their body and interpret what they are telling me as signs of where I should start. Just like unkinking a garden hose. I might lengthen the hose around the fence post, around a tree and think the hose is free of kinks and should have full pressure when I pull the handle on the sprayer, only to find there is a kink some where else that I can’t see. You can’t see the kinks in the body but they are there. Trust your body and become self aware. Remember in my last post, an itch is the first sign of inflammation.
The more you know what your body is telling you, the faster you can get it back into shape.