Dispelling the widespread myths behind lymphatic drainage massage, and who should actually get one
- Lymphatic drainage is a type of
massageused to flush out built-up fluid in the body.
- Lymphatic drainage massage reduces pain, stiffness, and swelling from certain medical conditions.
- Lymphatic drainage may reduce cellulite and puffiness in healthy people, but research is lacking.
Lymphatic drainage massage is a type of massage that can help reduce swelling in individuals with excess fluid buildup after surgery, illness, or injury.
Outside of its medical use, the procedure has gained popularity due to claims it can also help improve your appearance, but there is little evidence beyond anecdotal to support these claims.
Here's what the research says about who can benefit from lymphatic drainage massage and why.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and includes a network of tissues and organs that helps remove waste, toxins, and bacteria or viruses from the body.
It's also responsible for transporting white blood cells in a fluid called lymph to areas of the body that are fighting infection, says Kelly Farley, a certified lymphedema therapist at the University of Toledo Medical Center.
However, when you have a blockage, infection, or disease, it can hinder the lymphatic system's ability to transport lymph. As a result, the lymph fluid can accumulate and cause swelling and puffiness, says Rebecca Hammad, a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) at Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital.
Lymph build-up can also increase the risk of infection, skin damage, and wounds, says Farley. That's when it's time to drain the lymph via lymphatic drainage massage, which can improve your lymphatic system's function.
Medical benefits of lymphatic drainage massage
Lymphatic drainage massage, also known as manual lymphatic drainage, was developed for people with lymphedema - a condition caused by a blockage or damage in the lymphatic system, Hammad says. Lymphedema can be hereditary or can occur after a surgical procedure, infection, or other physical trauma.
In addition to improved circulation, other benefits of lymphatic drainage massage may include:
- Reduced swelling: A small 2007 study found manual lymphatic drainage on the neck reduced swelling after wisdom teeth removal.
- Pain relief: A 2015 review evaluating six trials of women with lymphedema after breast cancer treatment, found that lymphatic drainage effectively reduced swelling and pain.
- Pain and stiffness from fibromyalgia: A small 2009 study comparing the effects of lymphatic drainage massage and connective tissue massage in women with fibromyalgia found lymphatic drainage massage to be more effective in reducing pain, but more long-term studies are needed to determine how helpful the massage is for this condition.
Cosmetic benefits of lymphatic drainage massage
Lymphatic drainage massage is also offered in some spas as a way to:
While it is possible draining lymph fluid away from congested areas could result in the above benefits, these claims are anecdotal and lack scientific backing, says Farley.
A small 2010 study found lymphatic drainage massage to be as effective as mechanical massage and connective tissue manipulation in reducing fat tissue in people with cellulite. However, the researchers concluded more research is needed to determine the overall effects of lymphatic drainage massage on weight loss.
What to expect during lymphatic drainage massage
Each session during a lymphatic drainage massage lasts approximately 30 to 45 minutes, Hammad says, and involves more stretching of the skin and lighter pressure than a traditional Swedish or deep tissue massage.
It could be painful for some people, Farley says, but therapists typically work with patients to minimize pain.
Manual lymphatic drainage is typically performed in a hospital or outpatient setting by a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) who is trained to target and reduce the swollen areas, Farley says. The therapist may also teach you to perform their techniques at home.
Many different types of practitioners may be certified to perform this procedure, including:
- Physical therapists
- Occupational therapists
- Massage therapists specializing in lymphedema therapy
What's the cost? The cost of lymphatic drainage massage can vary depending on insurance coverage, the reason for referral, and the medical diagnosis underlying the need for the massage. But a ballpark range is roughly $100 to $200 per hour.
The benefits of manual lymphatic drainage typically last up to six hours, Hammad says. How often you may need to get a lymphatic drainage massage depends on the severity of your swelling and what stage of recovery you're in.
"Once the lymphedema is reduced and stabilized, the majority of patients are able to maintain the improvements by wearing compression garments on the affected extremity," Farley says.
Lymphatic drainage massage was created to treat people with lymphedema - a condition characterized by a buildup of fluid due to a blockage or injury within the lymphatic system.
The massage may offer benefits to people without this condition, but more research is needed to determine how effective it is for the average healthy adult.
A certified lymphedema therapist can perform lymphatic drainage massage within a clinical setting and teach you how to do it yourself at home.What to expect during and after a Swedish massageThe benefits of deep tissue massage and why it's not for everyoneHow pressure points on the hands and feet can reduce low back pain, anxiety, and even menstrual crampsHow to use a jade roller to combat red, puffy skin, according to dermatologists
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