Manual Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Updated: Jun 29
In Motion with Morrison Blog
Written by Aubrey Morrison
MS Sports Medicine, CSCS, Licensed Massage Therapist #16763
Manual Lymphatic Drainage is a specialized massage that is not commonly understood; since we get quite a few inquiries about it, it will be good to simplify it and help indicate whether this is what you need or not! This article will go over what exactly the lymphatic system does and what anatomical structures it consists of; then what conditions it can help with; then a description about what to expect from the treatment.
The lymphatic system is part of your immune system and its primary job is to carry white blood cells to areas of infection, and to transport harmful substances and toxins from around the body to lymph nodes where they are destroyed by concentrations of even more white blood cells. Its other job is to act as a “septic system” that breaks down waste products and carries excess water where it can be filtered out by the lymph nodes and returned to the bloodstream. The lymphatic system is composed of a network of vessels, lymph nodes, and several organs. The largest collections of lymph nodes are found in the neck, underarm, and groin area (that is not all, but for simplicity’s sake I am just listing the major locations). The major organs involved are the tonsils, thymus, and spleen. Basically, this system moves excess fluid and waste from tissues to the lymph nodes where high concentrations of white blood cells trap and break down waste and harmful things, puts that fluid and broken down things back into the bloodstream, and at some point the liver and kidneys will take that out of the bloodstream and excrete it from the body. It is important to note that lymph fluid can only travel upward toward the neck, and it does this by the muscles acting as a pump as they contract and relax. Inactivity can absolutely contribute to water retention in certain areas. For example, you may have felt as though your lower legs were swollen after sitting for a long time because there was extraordinarily little muscle activity going on to pump fluid up and out of the legs. If fluid is not being moved along, that excess water from tissues collects and causes swelling, toxins and waste are not being destroyed and filtered out, and those white blood cells are not being circulated around the body. Not good!
Lymphatic Massage encourages the normal movement of lymph fluid in conditions where it is compromised. It lightly stretches the skin and “unblocks” problem areas. The two conditions that indicate lymphatic massage are edema and lymphedema. Edema is local, acute swelling in an area from inflammation or injury that has caused a rush of extra fluid with white blood cells to the rescue, along with tissue damage and “leaky” vessels that spill a lot of fluid into surrounding tissue. So, think sprained ankle and how it swells and needs treatment for managing the swelling and reduction of inflammation. The swelling is a good thing in that it means the body is fighting the inflammation, but it does have to be managed and that extra fluid with the waste from the injury needs to be flushed from the area to be filtered by other components of the lymph system. Lymphedema is a chronic condition for which there is no cure; steps can be taken to prevent it, but it is something that just needs to be managed. This is from the actual removal or damage to the lymph nodes themselves, so there is nowhere for fluid to be filtered properly in an area to be returned to the bloodstream. Lymphatic Massage will redirect fluid to other lymph nodes to help the whole system keep functioning.
We typically perform Lymphatic Massage on individuals who have just had surgery and are dealing with the edema from that, have lost lymph nodes because of cancer treatment or some other reason, or have loss of movement (even autoimmune disorders where movement is painful) and can no longer pump lymph fluid along via muscle contraction. Some surgeries such as liposuction absolutely require Lymphatic Massage for proper recovery because of the invasive nature of that type of surgery, which results in an immune response being triggered as the body sees it as an “injury.” Lymphatic Massage is so gentle that it can be done every day! Obviously, it is not realistic for many people to come in for an appointment every single day; but we can INSTRUCT HOW TO PERFORM YOURSELF between sessions so there are still benefits. Even after one treatment, a big difference can be seen and felt! If you come in for this type of massage, you may very well fall asleep because it is so gentle and light. We will start by “clearing” areas nearest where collections of lymph nodes are (remember- neck, underarm, groin) and stroke upward toward those areas, working our way outward to the limbs. If you are coming in for a Lymphatic Massage, it would be a good idea to be hydrated, and keep hydrating all day! Dehydration means sluggish fluid movement, which is not what you want.
Check out this before and after from one treatment- this individual had an abdominoplasty and liposuction after some complications and diastasis recti following a couple of pregnancies. We began treatment about 2 weeks after surgery to decrease the swelling, mobilize the skin, and prevent scar tissue from forming. The “after” photo was taken the next day. The light and gentle nature of Lymphatic Massage may feel like not much is being done, but there is a LOT being done! We may also use a cupping technique specific to Lymphatic Massage as well.
If you have any questions or need to schedule a Lymphatic Drainage Massage, give us a call!