What Is a Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
Lymphatic drainage massage has become a popular form of massage due to its potential health benefits. It's a gentle form of massage that focuses on the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Your lymph system includes organs, vessels, and tissues that move or drain a water-like fluid called lymph from other parts of your body into your bloodstream.
Lymphatic drainage massage is especially helpful if you have lymphedema, which happens when lymph fluid doesn't go back to your blood the way it should and stays in other parts of your body. Lymphedema happens most often in your legs or arms. Many things can cause lymphedema, including:
- Genetic disorders
- Cancer treatment
Massage is a way to help move the lymph fluid and make the swelling it causes go away. If you're otherwise healthy, lymphatic drainage massage may feel relaxing. But it isn't likely to improve your health a lot.
The Lymphatic System
Your lymphatic system is an important part of your immune system. It keeps fluids in your body balanced and protects you against infections.
Your lymphatic vessels, collecting ducts, tissues, and organs drain extra lymph fluid that leaks into your tissues from tiny blood vessels (capillaries). If your lymphatic system doesn't work right or is blocked, you'll end up with extra fluid in your tissues.
Your lymphatic system also includes:
- Bone marrow. This soft, spongy tissue in your bones makes blood cells.
- Thymus. Immune T cells mature in this organ in your chest.
- Tonsils and adenoids. These structures in your throat and nasal cavity trap germs in food you eat and air you breathe.
- Spleen. This large lymphatic organ under your ribs and above your stomach filters old or damaged cells from your blood.
- Lymph nodes. These glands in your neck, armpits, and groin filter viruses or bacteria from your lymph fluid is it moves through them.
- Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT). The thin mucous membrane lining your tonsils, airways, small intestine, and appendix helps to find and rid you of germs.
Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Lymphatic drainage massage can help move trapped fluid when you have lymphedema. Your lymphedema specialist may use manual lymph drainage along with other techniques, including:
- Compression bandages, sleeves, or stockings
- A sleeve that inflates on and off to put pressure on your arms or legs (sequential pneumatic compression)
Many people get lymphedema during recovery from breast cancer surgery. If you have 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 after surgery.
Treating other health conditions
Lymphatic drainage massage may help treat other health problems, too. Some conditions may improve more with the massage than others.
Studies have found some lymphatic massage benefits for conditions including:
Rheumatoid arthritis. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may have poor lymph flow as the disease gets worse. 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 well. 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.
The massage can make the femoral artery – the large artery in the thigh – perform better right 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 shed more light on how well this massage technique works 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.
Lipedema. This is the name for when you have lymphedema from fat in your lower body that blocks lymph from draining through your lymphatic system.
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 technique uses various sweeping motions around the area your therapist is treating.
- Foldi. An extension of the Vodder technique, Foldi requires your 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 into the larger lymphatic system.
All these techniques work about the same way. They use gentle movements to stretch and move the skin in the direction of lymph flow. The strokes must start at the part of the limb nearest to your torso and move outward. Your massage will usually last 15 to 60 minutes.
What Happens During a Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
Talk to your doctor before getting a lymphatic drainage massage, and make sure you're seeing a trained and certified professional. Your massage therapist will follow a particular sequence, using a series of massage techniques, including stretching, compressing, gliding, and cupping motions. They'll start with the main lymph drains. These include lymph nodes in your:
Light movements stimulate your lymphatic system without pressing hard on your vessels. They make the lymph fluid move easily through your nodes and tissues, making sure the fluid doesn't get trapped anywhere.
Lymphatic drainage has two steps. They are:
- Clearing. During this step, your tissues will release lymph fluid.
- Reabsorption. Your lymph fluid moves into your lymph nodes.
Where Can I Get a Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
When you have lymphedema, it's best to see a doctor who specializes in treating it. See a specialist or therapist who has done at least 135 hours of training for lymphedema. It's best to get your lymphatic drainage massage from a certified lymphedema therapist. Ask your doctor if this is available at your clinic or if they can give you a referral.
How Can I Drain My Lymphatic System Myself?
Ask your lymphedema specialist if there are things you can to do help with your lymphatic drainage at home. Your doctor can help you decide whether it's a good idea to try do-it-yourself lymphatic drainage massage, perhaps along with seeing a massage therapist skilled in lymphatic drainage. When in doubt, see a certified lymphedema therapist.
You can try other things to help your lymphatic system, too, such as:
- Deep breathing
- Moving a brush in circles on your skin
- Tapping your skin right above your collarbones
How Can I Tell if Lymphatic Drainage Massage Is Working?
Massage might not help with your lymphedema right away enough to notice. If it's working, you should start to get relief from your symptoms of lymphedema in time. Your swelling should go down. You'll feel less heavy or tight. It will be easier to move, too. You may notice your clothes fit you better.
If you've had a few massages and aren't seeing any difference, ask your doctor about other things to try.
Risks of Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Lymphatic drainage is usually safe and can help with lymphedema. It might not be a good idea for you if you have other conditions, including:
- Heart problems
- Kidney failure
- Blood clots
Most people tolerate lymphatic drainage massage well. But it sometimes may cause:
If you aren't feeling well after your massages, ask your doctor for advice. If you're thinking about trying massage but are worried about the risks, talk to your doctors or a certified lymphedema specialist about it.
When to Get a Lymph Drainage Massage
Lymph drainage massage is a useful way to treat lymphedema and may help with certain other health conditions. If you have symptoms of trapped lymph fluid in your body, talk to your doctor about whether massage could help.
Symptoms of lymphedema to watch for include:
- Skin discoloration
- Tissue swelling
- Heaviness in the limbs
- Hardening or thickening of the skin
- Recurring infections
If you have these signs and think you may have lymphedema but aren't sure, see a doctor to find out what it is and how to treat it.