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Dry Brushing for Lymphedema: Does it really work?

Dry brushing helps exfoliate skin, but can it also stimulate the lymphatic system?
PUBLISHED March 22, 2017
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
The challenge of living life with lymphedema is daunting. Once the lymphatic system has been disrupted by trauma from surgery or the removal of lymphatic nodes, the swelling from pooling lymphatic fluid never completely disappears. Various factors can affect the amount of swelling. Excessive heat, overuse of limbs or restriction of extremities can cause problematic issues, but there are many ways to help disperse the fluid, too.  

I suffer from lymphedema and have fought the challenges it presents on a daily basis. I’ve tried many ways to combat the effects of lymphedema and I’m always looking for new ideas that might prove helpful. A few of the treatments I’ve tried include manual lymphatic drainage, bandaging, compression sleeves, rebounding and using a recirculating compression pump. While all of these treatments have helped in some way, I still deal with the collection of lymphatic fluid in my body.       

The lymphatic system is a huge network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of dangerous toxins. Its primary function is to transport lymphatic fluid throughout the body. The lymphatic fluid contains white blood cells specifically designed to fight infection. The easiest way to understand the lymphatic system is to think of a busy highway. I live in the Metro Atlanta area. The main interstate is I-285. During the day, this interstate is filled with hundreds of thousands of commuters. When traffic is flowing freely, it’s wonderful! Speeds in excess of 65 miles an hour allow travelers to reach their destinations quickly, but when there’s an accident everything changes. Even a minor fender bender can wreak havoc. Cars start to bottleneck and the flow is extremely thwarted. Travelers move forward at a snail’s pace waiting for the problem to be corrected. As cars jump from lane to lane in an effort to sneak past the problem area, more accidents occur and traffic can be at a standstill for hours.  

The lymphatic system is similar to a busy interstate. When there are no obstructions, the lymphatic fluid flows freely through the circulatory system of veins and capillaries. The lymphatic vessels are connected to lymph nodes which help filter lymphatic fluid. Everything is designed to work perfectly. The tonsils, spleen, adenoids and thymus are all part of the lymphatic system. Throughout the body, there are hundreds of tiny lymph nodes and vessels. Just like an unobstructed interstate, this system is set up to keep the lymphatic fluid moving freely. It also helps rid the body of dangerous toxins. When the fluid gets backed up, toxins build up and infections can occur. That’s why it’s important to find ways to push the fluid along and release the pent up toxic waste.   

In the search to alleviate painful lymphedema swelling, I came across an innovative idea called dry brushing. By using a soft, natural fiber brush, the body is stimulated in small, brisk stroking movements. Proponents of dry brushing claim that brushing the skin regularly helps stimulate the normal lymph flow within the body and help the body detoxify itself naturally. It sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try. I found many articles and videos related to dry brushing on the internet. Not many of them pertained to breast cancer or the after effects of surgery, although some did refer to lymphedema. I found the process inexpensive and easy to do. Along with my other lymphedema treatments, dry brushing is now part of my daily routine. Dry brushing may or may not work for you, but if you’re looking for a way to help with the discomfort of lymphedema, you might want to try it.   

How to begin dry skin brushing:   

1. You’ll need a high-quality brush. Look for one made from natural fibers such as boar bristle or agave. The brush fibers should be firm and move easily. They should not be extremely stiff. Choose a brush with a long wooden handle. This will make it easier to get to those hard to reach areas such as the back or buttocks. Many types of brushes are available, so choose one that will work best for your needs. My personal preference is a wooden brush with a handle that detaches. The head of the brush I use has a cloth band that fits nicely around the back of my hand. When detached from the handle, it makes a small, convenient brush for the arms, hands, neck and feet. Once you’ve selected your brush, it’s time to begin. For best results, dry brushing should be done in the morning, just before a shower or bath but it may also be done in the evening. For optimal benefit, dry brushing should be done at least once daily.  

2. After removing all clothing, stand in the shower or bath tub. Dry brushing is always done on dry skin with a dry brush. If there are areas on your body where the skin is sensitive or broken, be careful to avoid these areas. The brush is a tool to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Pressure should be fairly firm but should not cause any pain. Dry brushing is exactly what the name implies – brushing, not scrubbing.  

3. A dry brushing session should last somewhere between five and 20 minutes. It is important to cover the entire body, but the length of time spent on brushing is up to you. There are no set guidelines.  

4. Before brushing, always remember to work toward the heart.  

5. It is best to start with the feet. As you brush each foot, you may want to remove the handle of the brush unless you wish to remain standing as you brush. If you are seated, using just the brush head allows for better control and will aid in performing small circular motions on the sole of the foot. After brushing the soles of the feet, move to the top of the feet. Remember the skin is thinner here and may be more sensitive. Adjust your pressure so it is comfortable to you. Next move to the shins. If you are standing to do this, replace the brush handle and continue. Use long, gentle, short strokes that always move up toward the heart. Make several short, overlapping strokes working from the ankle bone up the shin toward the knee. Do this on each leg. Next, move to the back of each leg, concentrating on the calves while continuing to use short, rapid overlapping strokes. Once the area of the leg below the knees has been completed, start on the front of the thigh, continuing the same type of long, gentle strokes. After doing the fronts of both thighs, work toward the back of the thigh. The handle attached to the brush head will help your reach. Next, work the abdomen and trunk. Be sure to work carefully over sensitive areas. After these areas are done, proceed to the arms. Beginning at the fingertips, work in short strokes toward the wrist. From the wrist, proceed up the forearm brushing the top and the bottom sides of the arm. Continue from the elbow up the arm toward the shoulder using firm, gentle strokes on both upper and lower sides of the arms. At the shoulder begin stroking toward the chest/heart. Do one side of the body and then the other. At the neck, carefully use light strokes that move downward toward the chest area. Using the long handle attached to the brush again, reach around toward your back and stroke upward toward the heart. If this is too difficult to reach, ask someone to help.  

6. After all areas of the body have been dry brushed, it’s time to bathe or shower. Gently wash away the dead skin cells the dry brushing has helped exfoliate from your skin.  

7. Towel dry and finish your session with a moisturizing lotion or body oil.  

8. After dry brushing, the lymphatic fluid will move more easily through the lymphatic system and toxins will be removed. You may find a need to urinate more frequently after your dry brushing session. This is due to the release of stored lymphatic fluid.  

9. After one or two dry brushing sessions, you’ll find the length of time it takes to complete your entire body brushing shortens.   

I am not a medical professional and do not have medical training so please consult your doctor before beginning this technique. Do not dry brush over open wounds or press so firmly in your brushing that you cause your skin to turn red. A light pinkness will occur after brushing as circulation is stimulated and blood flow increases.  

Diagrams:   

http://www.maximedtherapy.com/uploads/1/2/2/4/12248669/8490231_orig.jpg?0   

http://www.softdlight.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/dry-bruhsing-diagram.jpg    
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