Manual Lymphatic Drainage for the Face, Head and Neck
for AMTA Convention 2019
The Lymphatic System is an essential system that is present throughout the human body and consists of
lymph vessels and a number of organs including lymph nodes, all of which contain lymphatic tissue. The
functions of the Lymphatic System are: it prevents edema by returning protein and capillary filtrate
(water) to the systemic circulation; it absorbs fat and fat-soluble vitamins from the small intestine and
provides immune surveillance by recognizing and responding to foreign cells, microbes, viruses, and
Lymph fluid is produced in small lymph capillaries as a result of net filtration through blood capillaries into the interstitium.
Once a lymph capillary is filled it is then transported to a larger lymph vessel called a collector which then directs lymph fluid towards lymph nodes where the fluid is filtered before continuing to even larger vessels (lymph trunks) and eventually back to the cardiovascular system. Lymphatic fluid, also known
as Lymphatic Load, consists of protein, water, fat and cells.
Lymph nodes serve as filtering stations, absorption of water, they regulate protein concentration in the lymph, and produce lymphocytes. There are 600 – 700 lymph nodes in the human body; they range in size from .2 - .3cm.
Lymphatic watersheds delineate (separate) lymphatic tributary regions. When providing MLD,
we can follow the direction of lymphatic collectors that lead to a particular group of lymph nodes.
The head and neck are separated from the trunk by the clavicle and spine of the scapula watersheds.
Lymph fluid from the head, neck and face drain into regional lymph nodes then to deeper cervical lymph
nodes, eventually leading into lymphatic jugular trunks, then into the left and right subclavian veins.
Edema occurs primarily when the fluid in the extracellular compartment (interstitium) builds up as a
result of increased filtration of water from blood capillaries or from a failure of the lymphatic system to
adequately return fluid from the interstitium to the cardiovascular system.
Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system has become damaged or compromised such as with
lymph node removal/radiation, damage to vessels and scar tissue which can block lymphatic pathways.
The techniques of MLD are designed to increase the movement of lymph (lymphangio-activity) and
interstitial fluid. The basic hand positions of MLD are adapted to follow the anatomy and physiology of
the lymphatic system.
• Improves lymph capillary uptake
• Increases lymph-angio activity
• Soothing effect
• Analgesic effect
• Re-direct fluid around blocked areas
Whiplash –hyperextension to the neck which can affect the bones, discs, muscles, nerves and/or
tendons of the neck. Symptoms can include muscle spasms, headaches, affected vision, dizziness, neck
Migraines – a recurring headache characterized by severe throbbing pain, photophobia, nausea that can
last for long periods of time. Sinus headaches/congestion can also be helped using MLD, with the
treatment focusing on the sinus regions of the face.
Post-Surgical Edema – swelling following any surgical procedure such as facelift/ trauma surgery, which
can lead to pain, restricted range of motion and bruising.
Tinnitus/Vertigo – Ringing in the ears that originates from the ears or head often caused by infections,
stress, medications or allergies. Symptoms include ringing in the ears, vertigo and hearing loss.
Dental Procedures – Following any dental procedure where there is remaining edema and pain, MLD
can be utilized to decrease pain and edema in the jaw and neck regions.
MLD can also be utilized for trigeminal neuralgia, allergy symptoms, sinus congestion, acne rosacea,
Please note that any client presenting with lymphedema should always be seen by a certified
lymphedema therapist (CLT) as the treatment requires specialized training in all areas of
lymphedema management including compression bandaging, skin care management and
specific MLD techniques that address the individual’s symptoms.
Head & neck cancers account for fewer than 5% of all cancers in the U.S. Cancers of the
brain, eye, thyroid, scalp, skin, muscles, and bones are not grouped with cancers of the
head & neck. The oral cavity and larynx are the sites most commonly affected. In this country, nasal and sinus cancers are rare.
The survival rate corresponds to tumor size. For tumors larger than 4cm, the survival rate
is 8–10%. Head & neck cancer can spread to adjacent lymph nodes, especially if the tumor is 2cm or larger.
Primary Lymphedema of the Head and Neck is rare and is usually unilateral, affecting the cheek region,
lips, and sometimes, the conjunctiva. It can be associated with congenital malformation of the lymphatic
system of the extremities. It is important to rule out secondary causes such as myxedema (thyroid
problem) or cyclic idiopathic edema (hormonal imbalance).
Secondary Lymphedema of the Head and Neck is more typically a result either of cancer obstructing the lymphatic pathways or damage caused by cancer treatments. In a surgical radical neck dissection (RND),
first described in 1906 to treat metastatic disease, five levels of lymph nodes, the spinal accessory nerve, the external and internal jugular vein, the sternocleidomastoid, and the omohyoid muscle are all removed. In order to minimize dysfunction, a modified RND was introduced in 1960 that preserves some or all of the non-lymphatic structures. Selective neck dissection (SND) goes even further by preserving one or more groups of lymph nodes.
The spinal accessory nerve, CN XI, provides motor innervations to the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius
muscles. Damage to this nerve caused by cancer interventions can negatively impact the
sternocleidomastoid muscle and the upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles resulting in weakness,
paralysis, pain, and cosmetic disturbances.
In addition to muscular changes, speech and swallowing can be impaired, saliva can be reduced,
the mucosa may become dry and irritated, and lymphedema can be present. The patient may suffer
from trismus, which limits the aperture of the mouth (how far the mouth can open). Surgical scar
tissue and radiation fibrosis can result in decreased range of motion of the neck and jaw and there is
always the risk of lymphedema. If the jaw is irradiated, the teeth may become necrotic. The mucosa becomes irritated and the saliva becomes thick and rope-like. Taste may be altered and infections in the mouth are common. These effects, along with difficulty in swallowing, often
result in poor nutritional intake which can lead to malnutrition.
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Post-surgical head & neck treatment should include scar and fibrosis management, MLD, compression,
positioning while sleeping, and exercises, as well as education on oral hygiene and self-management for
improved quality of life. Breathing, swallowing, and apnea must also be addressed by a Speech
Language Pathologist (SLP).
Edema can be managed with MLD, though be aware that the collateral lymphatic (venous) pathways will
be limited. Be careful applying MLD over irradiated skin.
Do not use thermal modalities on irradiated skin and observe graft precautions. Be sensitive to how
radiation and chemotherapy can affect the patient. The patient is likely to be hypersensitive to touch or
experience numbness in the affected area.
In addition to diminished cosmesis, scars can cause physical disruption by obstructing lymphatic
drainage and restricting cervical ROM. Thus, one of the key components of treatment must be scar management. Treatment should also facilitate the use of larger lymph-node groups for primary
drainage. Scars or tissue with radiation induced fibrosis can be carefully manipulated after they are well
healed. Scars can be made more mobile through the use of manual techniques such as scar mobilization,
Note: Treatment sequences should only be performed in the following sequence where the
lymphatic system is intact. (Not interrupted by scars, radiation fibrosis, after surgery, etc.)
Pre-Treatment: Neck supine
1. Effleurage, 2-3 times from the sternum to the acromion.
2. Stationary circles with the fingers laying flatly in the
3. Treatment of the cervical lymph nodes. Stationary circles
from the ear lobe to the supraclavicular fossa.
4. Stationary circles with fingers in front of and behind the ear
(pre-and retroauricular LN), then more stationary circles in
the direction of the supraclavicular fossa.
5. Stationary circles with fingers from the occipital region
(occipital LN) to the cervical lymph nodes, then more stationary circles in direction of the
6. Stationary circles in the area of the shoulder collectors. Four positions: 1) Acromion 2) Fingers
covering the descending part of the trapezius muscle 3) Back to acromion 4) Supra-clavicular fossa.
All sets are done with flatly lying fingers towards the supraclavicular fossa.
7. Follow-up moves according to findings.
8. Final effleurage.
Pre-treatment: Neck (supine)
1. Effleurage, starting at the back of the head and working
over the trapezius muscle to the acromion process.
2. Stationary circles starting at the angle of the jaw and
working in the direction of the supraclavicular fossa.
3. Stationary circles in several tracks on the back of the head, working in the direction of the occipital and retroauricular lymph nodes, then again in the direction of the supraclavicular fossa.
4. Stationary circles paravertebrally with erected fingers,
5. Follow-up moves according to findings.
6. Final effleurage.
Pre-treatment: Neck, and if indicated, posterior neck
1. Effleurage along the lower jaw, the upper jaw, the cheek and the forehead, in the direction of the
angle of the jaw.
2. Stationary circles with erected fingers in the submental and submandibular regions, working from
the tip of the chin in the direction of the angle of the jaw, then in the direction of the
3. Stationary circles starting at the lower jaw and working towards the submental and submandibular
lymph nodes (angle of the jaw) and then to the supraclavicular fossa.
4. Stationary circles starting at the upper jaw and working towards the submandibular lymph nodes,
then to the angle of the jaw, and again to the supraclavicular fossa.
5. Stationary circles with the finger tips starting at the tip of the nose and moving towards the cheeks
in several passes, each pass beginning one finger-width more superior until reaching the bridge of
6. Stationary circles starting on the cheek below the eye in several sets in the direction of the
submandibular lymph nodes, to the angle of the jaw, and again to the supraclavicular fossa.
7. If indicated, working at the upper and lower lid and the eyebrows with stationary circles (one or
more fingers) in the direction of the preauricular lymph nodes.
8. Stationary circles starting at the middle of the forehead to the temple, then towards the angle of the
9. Follow-up moves according to findings.
10. Final effleurage.
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