Lymphatic Drainage

Close-up image of woman lying on massage table receiving lymphatic massage on nect
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Lymphatic drainage, or lymph massage, is a gentle approach that focuses on the top layers of tissues for the enhancement of lymphatic circulation. At its most basic, lymph drainage can help clients improve metabolism, regenerate body tissue, normalize organ function, and boost the immune system. It may be performed as part of a traditional massage or used as its own full treatment.

Used in conjunction with massage therapy, lymph drainage is likely to benefit clients in general good health. A full lymphatic drainage treatment can be especially effective for clients experiencing lymph and immune system conditions, such as lymphedema, lymphoma, lupus, and HIV/AIDS.

What Are Lymphatics?

To understand how lymph drainage works, it helps to know the function of lymphatic fluids within the body. The lymphatic system is built of lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph—the fluid that travels through both. In a healthy individual, lymph interacts with tissue by delivering nourishing proteins and enzymes to it while also flushing out toxins and viruses.

Unlike the circulation of blood in the body, which happens in a loop, lymph vessels carry lymph in one direction. Lymph moves toward the nearest lymph nodes, which are responsible for breaking down any harmful substances deposited by lymph. Once broken down, harmful materials are delivered through the blood system to be eliminated by the lungs, kidneys, digestive system, or liver.

What Happens in a Lymph Drainage Treatment?

In general, a massage therapist who is trained in Swedish massage, or any branch of this modality, will honor the lymphatic flow by stroking toward the heart while avoiding areas where lymph nodes are grouped. This facilitates natural lymph drainage but is not considered a lymph drainage treatment. Even in focused lymph massage or lymphatic drainage, the treatment is meant only to stimulate the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system, not to force it.

Lymph nodes and lymph ducts are located in areas of the body often sensitive to touch: the neck, groin, armpit, inner knee, and inner elbow are all areas of concentrated lymph nodes. These areas, and the lymphatic system itself, are fragile. Gentle touch is key in effective lymph drainage, as firmer pressure might collapse the lymphatics and inhibit the flow of lymph.

As when receiving traditional massage therapy, during lymph massage treatment the client disrobes and lies on the massage table. Using light, slow strokes in the direction of lymph flow, the practitioner pays close attention to the client’s natural rhythm of lymph circulation and enhances this movement. This action is repeated five to seven times on each section of the body. Lymph massage can be performed anywhere on the body, but it often focuses on the neck, clavicle area, arms, or any site of localized trauma.

Another type of lymphatic drainage, though it is used fairly rarely, is abdominal massage. This experience is said to promote deep lymph circulation, improve organ function, and promote respiratory health. During an abdominal massage, the therapist performs the same lymph drainage techniques on the stomach, sides of the torso, and upper pelvic area, again using extremely gentle pressure and working within the client’s personal comfort level.

Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage

Like any massage, lymphatic drainage treatment can reduce stress and encourage relaxation as well as improve overall health and well-being. Because the lymphatic system finds and destroys items in the tissues that threaten overall health and function, it is integral to supporting a healthy immune system. Even simple strokes on the limbs toward the heart can help reduce swelling after an injury, fend off infection, or fight the common cold or flu.

Lymphatic drainage techniques are simple enough that most people can perform self-massage at home by gently stretching the skin. If you feel you may be coming down with a cold, you can attempt to stimulate lymph flow with light strokes on the neck from the chin to the collarbone. You can repeat the same types of strokes on the limbs, making sure your movements are always directed toward the heart, to improve general wellness and relaxation.

Lymphatic drainage has also been proven to reduce edema, or the buildup of fluids in the body, after mastectomy; support the immune system of people with HIV/AIDS or lupus; and improve sleep for those with chronic fatigue syndrome. Lymph massage can also be extremely beneficial for athletes and anyone in the rehabilitation process after a sports injury.

Contraindications of a Lymph Drainage Treatment

Though lymphatic massage is a supportive treatment to help control the progression of a health issue, disease, or infection, once the infection has spread this modality becomes contraindicated. Lymph drainage is not recommended for anyone experiencing acute inflammation, fever, heart problems, kidney dysfunction, and any other presenting health issue that could be exacerbated by increasing fluid circulation.

As with any bodywork treatment, those interested in lymphatic massage are advised to consult with a physician if there is any doubt about how a session might impact overall health and well-being. When seeking a massage practitioner to perform lymphatic massage or lymph drainage, ensure the professional has a thorough understanding of the lymphatic system and is fully credentialed with a background in this modality.

References:

  1. Beck, M. F. (2011). Theory & practice of therapeutic massage (5th ed.), 499, 605-617. Clifton Park, NY: Milady.
  2. French, R. M. (2012). The complete guide to Lymph Drainage Massage, 118. Clifton Park, NY: Milady.
  3. Laird, E. (2012). Lymphatic self-care: Boosting your body’s ability to heal itself. Massage Today, Vol 12(08). Retrieved from http://www.massagetoday.com/mpacms/mt/article.php?id=14639
  4. Vairo, G. L., Miller, S. J., Rier, N. C. I., & Uckley, W. I. (2009). Systematic review of efficacy for manual lymphatic drainage techniques in sports medicine and rehabilitation: An evidence-based practice approach. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy, 17(3), 80E-89E. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755111
  5. Werner, R. (2009). A massage therapist’s guide to pathology (4th ed.), 18. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  6. Zanolla, R., Monzeglio, C., Balzarini, A., & Martino, G. (1984). Evaluation of the results of three different methods of postmastectomy lymphedema treatment. Journal of Surgical Oncology, 26(3), 210-213. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jso.2930260317/full