If you have a lymphatic system that’s under attack or damaged, fluid buildup in your lymph nodes can make things pretty uncomfy and swollen. But can something as simple as touch via a lymphatic drainage massage help you out?
Since your lymphatic system helps waste and toxins exit your body, a lymphatic massage may help move the process along if things get backed up. Here’s how it works.
Lymphatic drainage massage facts
What is it? A lymphatic drainage massage is a gentle routine that targets areas of your body to help lymphatic fluids (aka lymph) flow more easily.
What are the benefits? Lymphatic drainage massage might help lessen swelling and increase circulation. This may help folks with certain health conditions linked to lymph buildup, like lymphedema.
How do you get one? You can contact a trained professional, such as a physical therapist who specializes in the practice, or learn techniques you can do at home.
Lymphatic drainage massage involves applying light pressure to the skin in a slow, stroking motion. By massaging the skin, you can help stimulate lymph vessels to contract and move fluid from swollen areas to other parts of the body.
For most of us, regular movement is enough to stimulate the lymph system so fluid flows freely throughout the body. But folks with damaged lymph nodes or certain illnesses develop swelling when lymph builds up (aka lymphedema). This swelling often shows up in the arms and legs.
Lymphatic drainage massage is typically part of complete decongestive therapy (CDT) — a multifaceted approach to reducing swelling due to problems in the lymphatic system. CDT includes four parts:
- Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD): a massage technique for increasing lymph flow
- Compression: wearing clothes or bandages that put pressure on the body part
- Exercises: movements that help stimulate drainage
- Skin care: treating skin conditions that result from swelling
Doctors often suggest professional lymphatic drainage massage after lymph node surgery to help reduce lymphedema symptoms. This is common in folks treated for breast cancer, since more than 20 percent will experience lymphedema.
But we’ll be honest, research on the effectiveness of lymphatic drainage massage for treating lymphedema is mixed.
- In a 2015 research review of breast cancer-related lymphedema, researchers found that using manual lymphatic drainage massage with compression bandages was more effective than bandages alone.
- But in a small research review of 12 studies, researchers found that compared to controls, lymphatic massage didn’t significantly reduce or prevent lymphedema in folks who had breast cancer surgery.
- Other research showed CDT — again the combo of manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, skin care, and exercises — helps reduce limb swelling.
- Another small research review showed that evidence for using manual lymphatic drainage massage is unclear, based on 8 studies of chronic lymphedema.
So for now, research is unclear on just how effective lymphatic massage is when people seem to experience improvement with or without it. At the very least, it is typically a safe treatment that may be worth trying.
Lymphatic drainage massage has also been used to help conditions besides lymphedema. While not completely proven, the technique may also be used to help folks with:
- digestive problems
- migraine attacks
- swelling (aka edema)
- skin disorders
So, what does the research say about using lymphatic massage beyond lymphedema treatment? Again, the research is limited and iffy. Here’s what we know:
- Researchers noted in a 2015 research review that lymphatic massage might help relieve fibromyalgia symptoms like stiffness and depression more than connective tissue massage.
- In a study of 52 participants, lymphatic massage significantly improved constipation compared to abdominal massage or electrical stimulation.
While lymphatic massage is generally considered safe for most people, it can be dangerous for folks with certain conditions.
Avoid lymphatic drainage if you:
- have an infection
- experienced blood clots or a stroke
- have congestive heart failure
- have cancer in the affected area
- you have liver or kidney problems
If you’re diagnosed with lymphedema, your doc may recommend a specialist to help you out. Otherwise, look for a physical therapist who is a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT).
Don’t assume a massage therapist can give you a lymphatic massage. Your standard deep tissue massage isn’t the same and is too much for folks with lymphedema.
Once you find a qualified physical therapist, make sure they’re aware of any conditions that can impact your fluid balance. They should also use a very light touch and not cause you any additional pain or swelling.
If the word “massage” makes you think of the delicious pressure needed to loosen tight muscles, dial that image way down. Lymphatic massage doesn’t require any pressure at all. The lymph structures you are targeting are just under your skin. It’s about as gentle as you would with a baby or a brand-new kitten.
This involves two major steps:
- Clearing: using gentle pressure to release lymph from your tissues
- Reabsorption: using gentle pumping or sweeping motions to move lymph back to your lymph nodes
Before you try any self-massage, meet with your certified lymphedema therapist, who can teach you how to do it right. Once you know the ropes, you can do self-massage up to 2 times per day, for about 20 minutes per session.
Tips before you get started
- Drink plenty of water.
- Lie down or get in your most comfortable position. It’s very important that you feel comfortable and not strained or in pain.
- Concentrate on keeping movements slow and gentle.
- Keep your hands relaxed.
- Use the flat part of your hand or fingers, not fingertips.
- Massage toward areas that are not swollen to give excess fluid a place to flow to.
- Do not do lymphatic drainage massage if you have an infection or condition that makes it dangerous.
Prepare your body
Imagine you are petting yourself instead of massaging. Run your hand over your skin so it is very gently stretched and then moves back to its normal position.
Concentrate your movement on the areas where lymph nodes are clustered, the neck, and underarms. Follow these steps to prepare your lymphatic system to be cleared:
- Breathe. Start by taking five slow deep breaths, in through your nose and out through pursed lips.
- Front of neck. Massage in a “J” stroke above your collarbone, from the outer part to the center of the neck. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
- Side of neck. Massage the side of the neck just below your ear from front to back and down. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
- Back of neck. Massage the back of your neck just below hairline to base of the neck, on either side of the spine. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Try these massage techniques
After the prep steps above, you can massage your arms or legs using these techniques. Remember: Keep your hands relaxed and use slow, light touches.
For your upper body
- Start under your arms. Place your hand on the opposite side of your body, under your arm. Pull skin toward the front of the body and up, then release. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
- Stroke the side of your body from hip bone to armpit. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
For your legs
- Place your hands on the inside of the leg, starting at the knee. Massage toward the outside of the leg and up toward the hip. Repeat 15 times and then move up to the next section above your knee. Repeat 15 times on each section from knee to groin.
- Place your hands behind your knee. Massage in a rolling upward stroke, 15 times.
- For your lower leg, start with one hand on the front of the ankle and one hand on back. Stroke upward toward the knee 15 times.
- Rotate skin on the inside and outside of your ankle.
- Massage your foot upward from toes to ankle.
So, did your lymphatic drainage massage work?
The best way to determine if lymphatic drainage massage worked for you is asking if you feel better. Are your symptoms like pain, swelling, and discomfort reduced?
As long as it doesn’t hurt or increase swelling, you can keep at it daily (granted you also get your doc’s approval). Discuss any improvements or concerns with your doctor and physical therapist.
Lymphatic drainage massage is a very gentle technique that may help lymph flow more easily. While research is slim on the technique’s effectiveness for lymphedema and other conditions, it generally doesn’t hurt to try it out. However, it can be dangerous if you have an infection, blood clots, a heart condition, or liver or kidney problems.
If lymphatic massage is safe for you, your doctor may even suggest it to help lymphedema.
Just make sure your doc gives you the A-OK to perform a lymphatic massage at home, or look for a massage therapist or physical therapist who is properly certified in the practice.