The Benefits of Lymphatic Massage

lymphatic massage
Lymphatic massage. Eliza Snow/E+/Getty Images

Lymphatic drainage is a technique designed to stimulate the flow of lymph (a clear-to-white fluid that carries white blood cells, oxygen, and nutrients to tissues throughout the body). Also referred to as "manual lymph drainage massage" and "lymphatic massage," lymphatic drainage typically involves a form of massage based on gentle, circular movements.

Since the lymph system serves as a central part of the immune system, proponents of lymphatic drainage suggest that this technique can help to boost immunity and treat a variety of health problems.

However, lymphatic drainage was initially developed in the 1930s by Danish physicians Emil and Estrid Vodder as a treatment for lymphedema (a condition marked by buildup of lymph in the body's soft tissues, usually as the result of infection, cancer, surgery, or genetic disorders affecting the lymph system).

Uses for Lymphatic Drainage

One common use of lymphatic drainage is the treatment of lymphedema resulting from the removal of lymph nodes as part of breast cancer surgery.

In alternative medicine, lymphatic drainage is also said to aid in the treatment of the following problems:

In addition, lymphatic drainage is sometimes used to promote detox, improve circulation, sharpen memory, and enhance athletic performance.

Available at many spas, lymphatic drainage is sometimes touted as a treatment for issues like acne, cellulite, and varicose veins.

Lymphatic drainage is also purported to offer anti-aging benefits.

Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage

Scientific studies show that lymphatic drainage may be beneficial in the treatment of a number of health problems. Here's a look at several key findings from the available research on this technique:

1)  Lymphedema

So far, research on the use of lymphatic drainage in the treatment of lymphedema has yielded mixed results.

In a report published in the World Journal of Surgical Oncology in 2013, for instance, scientists analyzed 10 previously published clinical trials testing the effects of lymphatic drainage on women experiencing lymphedema after undergoing breast cancer surgery. Looking at the findings from those 10 studies (which included a total of 566 patients), the report's authors concluded that the available evidence does not support the use of lymphatic drainage in prevention or treatment of lymphedema.

However, a study published in the journal Lymphology in 2012 found that lymphatic drainage may help protect against post-breast-cancer-surgery lymphedema. For the study, 33 women were given lymphatic drainage starting on the second day of surgery for breast cancer. Compared to 34 breast-cancer-surgery patients who were not given lymphatic drainage, these study members were significantly less likely to develop lymphedema over the next six months.

2)  Athletic Injuries

Lymphatic drainage may help treat certain sports-related injuries, according to a research review published in the Journal of Manual and Manipulative Therapy in 2009. In their analysis of previously published studies on the use of lymphatic drainage in sports medicine and rehabilitation (including three clinical trials), the review's authors found that lymphatic drainage may help reduce swelling related to ankle sprains and wrist fractures. However, the review's authors note that more research is needed to support the use of lymphatic drainage in sports medicine.

3)  Fibromyalgia

Lymphatic drainage shows promise in the treatment of fibromyalgia, suggests a small study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in 2009. For the study, 50 women with fibromyalgia received either lymphatic drainage or connective tissue massage five times a week for three weeks. While both groups showed significant improvements in pain and health-related quality of life, lymphatic drainage appeared to be more effective in alleviating morning tiredness and anxiety.

Caveats

Lymphatic drainage should be avoided by individuals experiencing any of the following:

  • post-surgery lymphedema marked by localized swelling
  • inflammation or infection of the lymphatic vessels
  • increased risk of blood clotting
  • congestive heart failure

If you're considering the use of lymphatic drainage in treatment of chronic conditions, it's important to seek treatment from a qualified practitioner of this technique. Some physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and massage therapists are licensed to practice lymphatic drainage.

Sources

Ekici G, Bakar Y, Akbayrak T, Yuksel I. "Comparison of manual lymph drainage therapy and connective tissue massage in women with fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial." J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2009 Feb;32(2):127-33.

Huang TW, Tseng SH, Lin CC, Bai CH, Chen CS, Hung CS, Wu CH, Tam KW. "Effects of manual lymphatic drainage on breast cancer-related lymphedema: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials." World J Surg Oncol. 2013 Jan 24;11:15.

Vairo GL, Miller SJ, McBrier NM, Buckley WE. "Systematic review of efficacy for manual lymphatic drainage techniques in sports medicine and rehabilitation: an evidence-based practice approach." J Man Manip Ther. 2009;17(3):e80-9.

Zimmermann A, Wozniewski M, Szklarska A, Lipowicz A, Szuba A. "Efficacy of manual lymphatic drainage in preventing secondary lymphedema after breast cancer surgery." Lymphology. 2012 Sep;45(3):103-12.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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