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Lymphatic Massage

Lymphatic drainage massage, also known as manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), is a type of massage used to reduce swelling caused by fluid buildup.

The lymphatic system acts as the body’s sewerage system. Consisting of a network of lymph nodes, ducts and vessels, it carries fluid—which contains proteins, salts, water and white blood cells—throughout the body to the blood. As part of the immune system, lymph nodes help filter out foreign substances (like infections) before that fluid enters the central venous system.

In conditions where the lymphatic system is not working properly, fluid builds up, causing the area to swell. Lymphatic drainage massage moves the fluid to where the lymphatic system is working properly, so the fluid can be removed and the swelling goes down.

What Conditions Can Lymphatic Drainage Massage Treat?

Lymphedema: The main health condition lymphatic drainage massage treats is lymphedema. Lymphedema is a severe and debilitating condition where excess protein-rich fluid accumulates in the space between cells within tissues.

Post-surgical swelling: Massage can help reduce swelling and promote healing after surgical procedures, says Sergio Alvarez, M.D., a plastic surgeon at Mia Aesthetics in Miami. A well-trained massage therapist should perform a lymphatic drainage massage effectively while avoiding disruptions to your surgical site and healing incision, he explains.

Edema: Edema is the accumulation of fluid in the body tissues. It can occur for a number of reasons including pregnancy, injury or certain medical conditions (such as heart failure or kidney disease), shares Melody Weber, a registered massage therapist and owner of livingoodproducts.com in Naples, Florida.

Sinus congestion: Lymphatic drainage massage specifically applied to the sinuses can also help relieve congestion and promote drainage in the sinus passages, adds Weber.

Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition that causes joint pain and swelling. Lymphatic drainage massage can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, according to Dr. Alvarez.

Lipedema: Lipedema is a chronic condition where fat and connective tissue accumulates in the legs, hips, buttocks and occasionally arms. It’s more common in women and can be painful. Standard of care for lipedema in the U.S. includes lymphatic drainage massage, which helps stimulate lymphatic flow and reduces swelling.

Fibromyalgia: According to a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis in Manual Therapy, lymphatic drainage massage was superior to connective tissue massage for managing stiffness, depression and quality of life for people with fibromyalgia.

Chronic venous insufficiency: Chronic venous insufficiency is a common condition that involves edema in the lower extremities, skin changes and discomfort. A small randomized controlled trial of 41 people with chronic venous insufficiency found that lymphatic drainage massage reduced symptom severity, edema and pain in people with chronic venous insufficiency.

Benefits of a Lymphatic Drainage Massage

Reduction of Swelling and Inflammation

Lymphatic drainage massage stimulates lymphatic flow, which can help reduce swelling and edema, explains Weber.

A systematic review looking at the efficacy and safety of lymphatic drainage massage to treat breast cancer-related lymphedema found that it may offer additional benefit over compression bandaging alone for swelling reduction. It also found that people with mild-to-moderate breast cancer-related lymphedema saw more benefit from lymphatic drainage massage combined with compression bandaging than people with moderate-to-severe breast cancer related lymphedema (but additional research is warranted).

Enhanced Immune System Function

One of the main functions of the lymphatic system is the removal of microorganisms and other foreign particles. The lymphatic system contains specialized immune cells, called lymphocytes, that destroy harmful microorganisms. Since a normally-functioning lymphatic flow is required for these processes, impaired lymphatic drainage could lead to an accumulation of inflammatory substances in the fluid between cells.

Lymphatic drainage massage can support the body’s immune response by helping remove toxins and waste materials, according to Weber.

Relaxation and Stress Relief

“The gently, rhythmic stokes of lymphatic drainage massage promote relaxation and can help reduce stress and anxiety,” says Weber.

A randomized controlled trial of 50 women with fibromyalgia found that lymphatic drainage massage was superior to connective tissue massage for reducing symptoms of anxiety. However, studies with longer-term follow up are needed