Simple exercises for lymphatic drainage and a healthy immune system

Shawn Higgins, DO

Guest post by Shawn Marie Higgins, DO, Osteopathic Wellness

One thing we can all do to start off 2018 on the right foot is to give our immune systems a healthy boost. We can do this by keeping the lymphatic system flowing as freely as possible. Here is a brief explanation of the lymphatic system as well as a few simple lymphatic pumping exercises that encourage lymphatic drainage.

What is the lymphatic system? How is it related to the immune system?

The lymphatic system is the part of the circulatory system in our bodies that carries disease-fighting cells to where they are needed. The circulatory system is comprised of arteries, which make up a network of vessels that carry blood to our body parts and organs; veins which comprise a network of vessels that carry blood from the body parts back to the heart, and lymphatic vessels that transport lymphatic fluid, called lymph. Lymph is the fluid that transports lymphocytes and other disease-fighting cells to and from sites of infection and injury.

Diagram of lymphatic system

Source: Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014

Lymph also carries bacteria and other harmful invaders to the lymph nodes where they are destroyed, removes waste products and cellular debris, and acts as an extra pathway of return for proteins and excess fluid into the bloodstream.

Besides the lymphatic vessels, other parts of the lymphatic system include the thymus, bone marrow and spleen. The thymus provides a site for immune cells (T-Cells) to develop and mature, and to adapt a proper T-Cell response to potential infection, cancer, or other harm. Bone marrow produces immune cells as well as provides a site for their maturation. The spleen produces immune cells as well as filters out old blood cells and debris from the blood.

The lymphatic system is an open system, which means that it can communicate with and transfer fluid from lymph circulation to blood circulation. This allows it to dispose of waste products from lymph and into blood circulation for elimination from the body. Additionally, it allows for distribution of healthy fluid back into the blood to help balance fluid levels between the various fluid compartments of the body.

Diagram of lymphatic ducts

Source: Henry Vandyke Carter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two main sites at which this fluid exchange occurs (from lymph to blood) are the lymphatic ducts. These are the thoracic duct (located behind the left medial clavicle) and the right lymphatic duct (behind the right clavicle) as shown in the diagram below.

Movement of lymph throughout the body occurs naturally via smooth muscles lining the ducts and valves to prevent backward flow, and the action of breathing. So, essentially any exercise will increase lymphatic circulation by increasing blood circulation and by increasing our rate and intensity of breathing.

Because these lymphatic ducts are two main sites of lymph drainage from lymphatic vessels back into blood circulation, keeping the tissue around the ducts flexible and open can significantly increase their ability to drain fluid. Using the arms to pump fluid can help increase circulation locally at the ducts themselves and blood circulation centrally at the heart.

Exercises to help drain the lymphatic ducts

Let’s go over some specific exercises that can help to manually pump lymphatic fluid and encourage its drainage into the lymphatic ducts. You can watch me demonstrating both exercises in the video at the end of this post.

ARM PUMPING EXERCISE #1

  • Sit comfortably on a supportive surface with legs crossed (if possible)
  • Spine straight
  • Arms at your sides with your elbows bent at about a 60-degree angle
  • Palms turned towards you.
  • Straighten arms completely so that your elbows are straight, keeping them at a 60-degree angle, making an air “V” shape
  • Pump the arms up and down, making sure you go all the way up (arms straight as a bone!) and all the way down (arms against your sides!) each time
  • Do about 60 pumps in 90 seconds or at whatever rate causes you to breathe faster
  • Make sure you BREATHE!

ARM PUMPING EXERCISE #2

  • Lie flat on a supportive surface (floor with yoga mat recommended)
  • Arms straight by your sides; do not bend at the elbows
  • Lift arms about 6-8 inches off the floor, elbows straight
  • Pump up and down with STRAIGHT elbows
  • Do 100 of these, fast if possible, at a rate of 1 pump per second
  • You should challenge yourself so that it’s a little difficult and your breathing increases
  • Keep BREATHING!

Here’s a short video of me demonstrating both exercises.

Many blessings for a beautiful 2018!

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