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What is lymphatic drainage massage used for? And is it right for you?

Experts weigh in on whether this gentle massage therapy can improve your health.

If you listen to all the alleged health claims, lymphatic massage sounds like the next best thing to the fountain of youth. It gives your skin a youthful glow! It alleviates chronic pain! It lowers anxiety and stress! Are these claims valid? Or just a bunch of hype?

First, a quick biology lesson. The lymphatic system is a network within your body that is part of your immune system and has its own vessels and lymph nodes. Many of the lymphatic vessels lie just under your skin, and they contain lymphatic fluid that circulates throughout your body. You have lymph nodes in many parts of your body — there are clusters in your armpits, groin, neck and abdomen. The lymphatic system helps balance fluid levels in your body and protect your body against bacteria and viruses.

What does lymphatic massage do?

When your lymphatic system doesn’t work correctly, because of cancer treatment or other diseases, you can develop a type of swelling called lymphedema. Lymphatic massage, also called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), can coax more fluid to move through the lymphatic vessels and reduce this swelling.

Lymph massage doesn’t have the pressure of a deep-tissue massage. “Lymphatic massage is a light, hands-on technique that gently stretches the skin to assist lymphatic flow,” Hillary Hinrichs, physical therapist and ReVital program director for SSM Health Physical Therapy in St. Louis, Missouri, told TODAY.

“Patients say, ‘Oh, you can push harder’ (during a lymphatic massage). But these lymphatic vessels are tiny, and they’re in our skin. So, the whole point is to stretch the skin to help facilitate that lymphatic pump,” Hinrichs said.

Who can benefit from lymphatic massage?

Doctors often recommend lymphatic drainage massage if you have been treated for cancer. That’s because you might need surgery to remove some lymph nodes as part of your cancer treatment. Plus, radiation can damage your lymph nodes.

“As a breast surgeon, I send lots of patients to physical therapy for lymphatic evaluation and lymphatic massage,” Aislynn Vaughan, MD, chair of the membership committee for the American Society of Breast Surgeons and a breast surgeon with SSM Medical Group in St. Louis, Missouri, told TODAY. “We end up removing lymph nodes from the armpit or axillary area. And when you disrupt those lymphatic channels, you can get buildup of lymphatic fluid in the arm or the breast.”

Other types of cancer surgery can make it more likely you’ll develop lymphedema in other parts of your body. For example, you might need lymphatic facial massage to help lymphatic drainage in the face after head or neck cancer surgery. And lymphedema massage can support lymphatic drainage in the legs after gynecological surgery.

“Someone who has lymphedema will benefit undoubtedly from manual lymphatic drainage,” Nicole Stout, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, said. “It clears the congested area and enables other parts of the body to take up the fluid.”

Your doctor may recommend you talk to a therapist who specializes in manual lymphatic drainage before your surgery or radiation treatments. That’s because catching problems in the lymphatic drainage system early can make the condition a lot easier to manage.

Can lymph drainage therapy improve my health?

While lymph nodes massage doesn’t have evidence-based research to support its use in healthy people, it’s possible that stimulating the lymphatic system can help enhance your immune function. “When I start to get a little bit of a cold or my throat feels a little sore, I’ll do some lymphatic massage on my neck to hopefully stimulate more of an immune response in that region of the body,” Stout said.

People claim that lymphatic massage can be cleansing and can enrich your skin and eliminate toxins. Those effects are plausible, but they aren’t backed by scientific research, Stout said.

“Lymphatic massage can be relaxing and soothing, so there is some evidence that manual lymph drainage helps reduce anxiety and improve sleep,” she said. “Whether that is a direct impact of lymph moving, or whether it’s a response to having someone’s hands put on you in a comforting way, we’re not sure.”

A therapist can talk to you about the benefits you could see from lymph drainage. “We’re here to guide you based on what we know from the anatomy and physiology and the evidence that’s available,” Hinrichs said. “But at the end of the day, you know what feels best to you and your body. I really try to encourage self-reflection to learn what your body is responsive to.”

Don’t count on lymphatic massage to help treat everyday swelling or edema. For example, lymphatic massage isn’t the answer if your legs or ankles are swollen because you’ve been on your feet all day.

If you have certain health conditions, you’ll want to steer clear of lymphatic massage. Hold off draining lymph nodes if you have an acute infection like cellulitis, unmanaged congestive heart failure or a recent deep vein thrombosis.

How often do you need lymphatic massage?

If you have an impaired lymphatic system, you’ll want to find a therapist who is certified in providing manual lymphatic drainage. Managing your lymphedema is something you’ll need to do for life, but you can learn lymphatic massage techniques you can do at home, either on your own or with the help of your partner or a family member.

There’s a sequence to lymphatic massage — it’s not as simple as massaging the swollen area. In fact, you probably want to start your massage in another area of your body so it can pull fluid from the congested areas. If you have damage to your lymphatic system, it’s vital to learn self-massage from a trained professional so you can understand the sequence that will best help you drain your excess fluid.

Keep in mind, manual lymphatic drainage is just one part of a lymphedema treatment program. Leg or arm compression, exercise, elevation, skincare and managing diet and fluid intake are also crucial.

The bottom line

Lymphatic massage, or manual lymphatic drainage, has proven benefits for people who have lymphedema or are at risk for developing it. It could possibly help improve overall health in others, but those benefits aren’t yet backed by research.