Reflexology Lymph Drainage

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What is Reflexology Lymph Drainage?

Reflexology Lymph Drainage (RLD) was developed by Sally Kay primarily to treat survivors of breast cancer. Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and according to Cancer Research UK (2011), the lifetime risk of developing it in the UK is 1:8 for women and 1:1014 for men. Approximately 20% of patients develop secondary lymphoedema of the arm following treatment for breast cancer that includes surgery or radiotherapy to the axillary lymph nodes. Once lymph nodes have been removed there is a lifetime risk of developing it.

What is Lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that causes tissue swelling due to blocked, damaged or absent lymph drainage channels. This is a progressive and debilitating condition for which no cure is currently available. It can be painful and incapacitating, as well as restricting the mobility and range of movement in the affected area.

Lymphoedema classifications
Primary Lymphoedema is caused by an intrinsic hereditary congenital defect of the lymphatic system. This can affect the lymph vessels or the lymph nodes or both. Primary lymphoedema may present and develop at birth or during infancy, however, it is likely to occur later in life at times of hormonal changes, such as puberty, pregnancy or menopause.
Secondary Lymphoedema is caused by an extrinsic factor, damage to the lymphatic system. This could be caused by surgery, radiation, scar tissue, trauma from accidents, injury and insect bites.

Management of Lymphoedema
With no cure available, the options are limited to managing the symptoms of lymphoedema. One such treatment is Manual Lymph Drainage. MLD is a very gentle form of specialist massage that uses a light pressure. Reflexology Lymph Drainage is based on MLD principles; therefore RLD is a gentle treatment using light pressure to stimulate the corresponding reflexes.

Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) is used to treat conditions other than lymphoedema, and RLD may be used similarly. MLD may be useful with the following conditions:

  • Arthritis
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sinus problems
  • Muscular tension
  • Asthma
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraines
  • Aches and pains
  • Eczema
  • ME
  • Headaches
  • Premenstrual Syndrome

The Research Work Underpinning RLD

RLD was developed through clinical practice while working in cancer care outpatient clinics, using Reflexology for patients suffering from different kinds of cancers at all stages of the disease. Many patients had been treated for breast cancer and consequently suffered secondary lymphoedema. Complaints relating to lymphoedema often included a swollen arm, painful shoulder, uncomfortable underarm swelling, weakness and problems with everyday living activities. In the summertime, patients found the support sleeve uncomfortable in the heat as well as unsightly and it was often described as “a label”, and “a constant reminder”.

The treatment focused on the primary concern of the patient and was adapted accordingly. During the time there, it became apparent that patients who had swollen arms and pockets of fluid under their armpits were deriving great benefit from Reflexology treatment. As the treatment progressed patients could feel tingling in the swollen arm while the corresponding foot reflexes were stimulated. Their clothing and jewellery seemed much looser after treatment and their swollen arm felt more comfortable.

Patients who had received this treatment experienced less discomfort and swelling and an increase in strength and arm mobility. RLD protocol was developed and formalised, it is performed on the feet and is tailored to the affected arm. It differs according to which side has been treated for breast cancer.

As this pattern began to emerge in patients who received RLD, so did the prospect of measuring the effect of reflexology with objective measurements. With the support of Hospice of the Valleys, training in limb volume circumferential measurement (LVCM) was arranged. This enables the volume of fluid held in each arm to be calculated, and compared before and after treatment, and then compared with the non-swollen arm.

A research proposal was submitted and NHS ethical approval was granted. Six participants were given RLD treatments, once a week for four consecutive weeks and measurements were taken before and after each treatment. In addition to capturing the objective data, participants were asked to describe their concerns and comment about how they felt. This was recorded using a standard outcome measure, MYCaW (Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing) and as part of the consultation and feedback. All of the participants reported feeling movement of fluid during their Reflexology treatment.

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