Lymphatic Massage: The Incredible Power of a Gentle Touch

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Clients report a blissful, full-body buzz and sense of lightness after a lymphatic massage.

Lymphatic massage uses light pressure to move lymph, it begins at the collarbones to open the thoracic lymphatic ducts.
Lymphatic massage uses light pressure to move lymph (swelling).

Its benefits include reduced swelling, boosted immunity, and relaxation, making lymphatic massage a great choice to support healing after a surgery, car accident, or acute injury. Some enjoy it simply to detox and support their natural wellness, while others use it as an essential tool to manage swelling and fatigue after cancer treatment.


Lymphatic massage is a safe, gentle, and powerful style of massage. It uses light pressure and rhythmic strokes to stimulate the flow of lymph. It’s easily distinguished from Swedish massage because it doesn’t use oil or lotion, and follows a specific, scientific protocol to move lymph through watersheds to return it to the blood stream.



Lymphatic massage benefits:

  • Reduced swelling

  • Boosted immunity

  • Pain relief

  • Sense of lightness


Lymphatic massage is an ideal choice to treat the following:

  • Lymphedema

  • Swelling or edema

  • Chronic pain

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Whiplash

  • Stiffness

  • Stress

  • Fatigue

  • Depression

  • Exercise recovery

  • Insomnia

  • Arthritis

  • Headaches/migraines

  • Recovery after surgery/injury


There’s ~50 research articles that support the efficacy of lymphatic massage available on the Dr. Vodder School website, and we’ll look at a couple key publications at the end of this article.


Vodder School: The Difference between MLD and Massage [1:08]



The Lymphatic System: How does lymphatic massage work?


The lymphatic system is a sister to the circulatory system. On its journey, about 10% of your blood leaves the blood vessels and enters the interstitial space between tissues. This fluid is picked up by the lymphatic system, filtered through lymph nodes (which are full of white blood cells), and then returned to the blood stream.


Because the lymphatic system doesn’t have a heart to pump it through the body, it relies on the contraction of lymph vessels and muscles. When this process isn’t fast enough, swelling builds up.


Lymph flows through the body's watersheds, through lymph nodes, to the heart.
You need a detailed understanding of how lymph flows through the body to perform lymphatic massage.

Lymphatic massage always begins at the collarbones, where lymph is returns to the bloodstream. By draining lymph at the exit, it creates a vacuum to invite more lymph into the system.


The massage uses light strokes to push lymph through the body. Medium/deep pressure would crush the lymph vessels and close them temporarily, so it’s important the pressure is very light to keep them open.


Lymphatic massage also includes pumping the lymph nodes, located in the armpit, neck, inguinal area, and other locations specific to treatment.


Infrared fluorescence imaging has shown that this treatment speeds up the natural contraction of lymph vessels by 25%, so your healing continues even after you’re off the table. (Source)


This work is performed without oil or lotion so the manual pressure stretches the skin, rather than sliding over it. This opens the intake flaps on the lymph vessels. As an added bonus, this sends a soothing message to the dense collection of superficial nerve receptors in the skin and fascia, which contributes to the relaxation and pain relief effect. There are 6x more nerve receptors in fascia than muscles. (Learn more about fascia.)


Depending on your goals for treatment, lymphatic massage may take 15-90 minutes to perform. For example, to treat swelling in one arm may take 30 minutes of local massage. It may take 30 minutes to move swelling in the leg back to the heart. To open up the neck for a simple relaxation and wellness boost may take 15 minutes.


There are a couple schools of this work, including Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD, developed by Estrid and Emil Vodder in the 1930s) and Lymphatic Facilitation.



Lymphatic massage vs Kinesiology tape


The power of lymphatic massage comes from stretching the skin to support lymph uptake and stimulate sensory nerves… Which is the same principle behind kinesiology tape.


KT Tape is a special, stretchy tape that creates a subtle lift on the skin it’s applied to. It works so well it can magically erase bruises.


After all, bruises are a sign of bleeding outside blood vessels (in the interstitial space). When this lost fluid is reabsorbed by the lymphatic system, the bruise heals and disappears.


(Learn more about kinesiology tape.)


Kinesiology tape lifts skin to support lymphatic uptake which magically erases bruises!
Kinesiology tape and lymphatic massage both subtly stretch the skin to erase bruises and support healing.


Lymphatic drainage massage vs Deep Tissue massage


Pressure determines which level of tissue is affected, or hooked into. Deep pressure will affect deep tissues. Light pressure will affect superficial (near the skin) tissues.


Lymphatic massage clearly demonstrates the importance of superficial tissue for overall wellness. Additionally, it creates systemic benefits that relaxes muscles, reduces pain, and improves range of motion, even though the massage doesn’t directly address muscle tissue.


That said, no one tissue depth is more important than the other. Ideally, a massage would include a range of pressures to address restrictions embedded in all layers of tissue… while avoiding irritatingly light and painfully deep pressures, which just aren’t helping anyone.



Lymphatic massage vs Cupping


Tiny glass facial cups drain lymph on the face to reduce eye puffiness and wrinkles.
Tiny glass facial cups drain lymph on the face.

Cupping uses negative pressure (vacuum suction) to stretch muscles and move fluid through the body. You can clearly see this fluid effect with the red marks that may develop, which is a sign of blood flow. Cupping also moves lymph, and is an alternative to manual lymphatic drainage.


For proper lymphatic cupping, the session must start with manual lymphatic drainage protocol at the collarbones and lymph nodes before cups are used to lightly move fluid through the body.


(Learn more about cupping.)



Lymphatic massage as a beauty treatment?


Before / after lymphatic massage to reduce tummy puffiness.
Before / after lymphatic massage ... not that there's much of a difference.

Some use lymphatic massage to reduce weight, smooth cellulite, and clear up acne.


By reducing swelling and water weight, the massage may appear to reduce weight. Lymphatic massage may also reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and puffiness around the eyes by moving lymph on the face. It can even clear up acne that’s caused by a clogged lymph node.


However, lymphatic massage is not a miracle, and at its core the lymphatic system is about much more than being beautiful: it’s about being healthy.



Can lymphatic massage make you sick?


The lymphatic system deals with immunity. While the massage itself won’t make you sick, if you’re coming down with a cold when you get a treatment, the massage will push it through lymph nodes before they have a chance to filter the lymph, possibly spreading sickness around the body, accelerating its progression.


The experience is usually goes like this: instead of being mildly sick for a week, you might be really sick for just a few days.


If you know you’re coming down with something, you should avoid lymphatic massage (plus, you don’t want to spread the sickness to your practitioner!).



The Research


First, a disclaimer. A review of lymphatic massage research from 1998 to 2008 stated that, while “pilot studies and case studies demonstrate effectiveness … there is limited high-ranking evidence available.” Most studies have less than 100 participants and simply test massage against no treatment, which leaves the possibility of a placebo effect. Still, the research is exciting and favorable. (Source)


The primary reason for seeking lymphatic massage is to reduce swelling. A 2011 study by American College of Rheumatology tested manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) on 35 patients with hand edema (swelling) by treating them once a week for 5 weeks. They saw significant reduction in hand size and swelling that was maintained at a follow-up evaluation 9 weeks later. (Source)


What about client reports that lymphatic massage is good for mental health? Kangwon National University did a study with 111 participants to test the effect of MLD on the nervous system. They did a brief 15 minute session of MLD around the neck and found significant benefits for stress, pain, and anxiety. The researchers said “It is recommended that MLD be considered as one of the manual therapies for subjects with psychological stress.” (Source)


The Karolinska Institute in Sweden performed a small study with 17 women who have fibromyalgia to see if light lymphatic massage would be an effective pain management tool. Participants received an hour of massage over the course of the month, and the results were very exciting: “Pain, stiffness, sleep, sleepiness and well-being all improved during the treatment period. Two months after treatment cessation, significant improvement remained in pain.” (Source)


Similar results were noted in another study. An unfortunate side effect of breast cancer treatment for 40% of patients is lymphoedema, caused by loss of axillary lymph nodes. This study tested the benefits of lymphatic massage for 31 women with breast cancer‐related lymphoedema. Not only did manual lymphatic drainage significantly reduce swelling and limb size, participants also reported more restful sleep, less pain, a sense of body lightness, and overall better quality of life. (Source)


These studies show lymphatic massage is a great treatment choice!



 

Jesse Martel is a Licensed Massage Therapist who practices in Seattle, Washington. She has helped many people overcome neck/shoulder injuries and chronic back pain with Upgraded Myofascial Release massage. Treatment includes Aromatherapy, Myofascial Release, Cupping, Lymphatic Drainage, and Kinesiology Tape at one flat rate. Her website is SageBodyworkSeattle.com.

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