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What Is Lymph Drainage Massage?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 12, 2021

Lymph drainage massage has become a popular form of massage due to its potential health benefits. This specialized approach focuses on the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. 

This type of massage aims to help the body maintain proper blood circulation, body fluid balance, and immune functions. 

Understanding the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system contains vessels and nodes with lymph, a mixture of proteins, water, waste products, and immune system elements. Located throughout the body, lymph nodes filter all this debris. 

The largest nodes are in the neck, groin, and armpits. They all work together to make sure "clean" lymph is transported back to the veins that carry blood toward the heart.

Lymphedema

Lymphatic drainage massage has been used for people with lymphedema, which involves swelling, generally in one of your legs or arms.

The swelling is caused by lymph fluid that's collected in the soft tissues, due to genetic disorders, injury, infection, cancer treatment, or surgery. Symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Pain
  • Skin discoloration
  • Tissue swelling
  • Heaviness in the limbs
  • Weakness
  • Hardening or thickening of the skin
  • Recurring infections

Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage Massage

‌Lymphedema can be treated with tight compression bandages or stockings, but a manual lymphatic drainage massage can help enhance the benefits. 

If you experience lymphedema after a mastectomy, which involves the removal of breast tissue to treat or prevent breast cancer, lymph drainage massage can help ease mild to moderate symptoms post-surgery. 

Treating Other Health Conditions

Aside from lymphedema, lymphatic drainage massage can help treat several health problems. Some conditions can benefit more from the massage than others. 

Studies have found that lymphatic drainage massage may be beneficial for the following:

Rheumatoid arthritis. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may experience poor lymph flow as the disease progresses. Along with tissue swelling, pain in the joints increases, joints lose their function, and the skin changes color. Lymph drainage massage can help ease these later-stage rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). Chronic venous insufficiency is when the valves or walls of the veins that are in the legs don't work correctly. This makes it hard for the blood to flow back to the heart from the legs.Lymphatic drainage massage can help increase the speed of blood flow in people with CVI.

Continued

The massage can make the femoral artery — the large artery in the thigh — perform better immediately after the session. It's unclear how long this impact lasts or whether the massage provides long-term relief from pain and swelling. Further research in this area would help bring more light to the effectiveness of this massage technique on CVI.

Fibromyalgia. Lymph drainage massage may help people with fibromyalgia. This condition causes inflammation of the skin nerves, discoloration of the skin, and tissue swelling. The massage has been shown to be better than connective tissue massage in treating depression, stiffness, and improving quality of life for those living with fibromyalgia.

Types of Lymphatic Drainage Massage

There are four types of lymphatic drainage massage commonly used by massage therapists, physical therapists, and doctors. These include.

  • Vodder. This foundational technique uses various sweeping motions around the area the therapist is treating.
  • Foldi. An extension of the Vodder technique, Foldi requires the massage therapist to alternate between circular hand motions and moments of relaxation.
  • Casley-Smith. This approach to lymphatic massage also involves circular hand motions, mainly using the sides and palms of the hands.
  • Leduc. This technique relies on hand motions to collect lymph fluid before redirecting it for reabsorption into the larger lymphatic system.

All these techniques function on the same principle. They all use gentle movements to stretch the skin in the direction of lymph flow. The methods must start at the part of the limb nearest to the torso and move outward. The procedure will typically last between 15 to 60 minutes.

What Happens During a Lymph Drainage Massage?

Talk to your doctor before getting a lymphatic drainage massage, and make sure you're receiving treatment from a trained professional. The massage therapist will follow a particular sequence, using a series of massage techniques, including stretching, compressing, gliding, and cupping motions.

Light rhythmic movements stimulate the lymphatic system without pressing hard on the vessel. They make the lymph fluid move easily through the nodes and tissues, making sure the fluid doesn't get trapped anywhere.

When to Get a Lymph Drainage Massage

Lymph drainage massage is a useful technique in treating lymphedema and other health conditions. If you have symptoms of trapped lymph fluid in the body, talk to your doctor about the benefits of this type of massage.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “What Is Lymphedema?”

Archives of Medical Science: “Manual lymphatic drainage improves the quality of life in patients with chronic venous disease: a randomized controlled trial.”

Better Health: “Lymphedema.”

Cancer Research UK: "About manual lymphatic drainage (specialised massage) for lymphoedema."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Lymphedema.”‌‌

Frontiers in Immunology: “Lymphatic Function in Autoimmune Diseases.”

Journal of Cancer Survivorship: Research and Practice: “Manual lymphatic drainage treatment for lymphedema: a systematic review of the literature.”

Journal of Symptom and Pain Management: Complex Decongestive Lymphatic Therapy With or Without Vodder II Manual Lymph Drainage in More Severe Chronic Postmastectomy Upper Limb Lymphedema: A Randomized Noninferiority Prospective Study.”

Michigan Medicine: “Lymphatic Massage.”

PLoS One: “Massage Therapy for Fibromyalgia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.”

Quality of Life Research: “Manual lymphatic drainage and quality of life in patients with lymphoedema and mixed oedema: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD).”

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