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Lymphatic drainage is a technique designed to stimulate the flow of lymph (a fluid that transports white blood cells, oxygen, and nutrients to tissues throughout the body). Also referred to as "manual lymph drainage" or "lymphatic massage", lymphatic drainage typically involves gentle, circular movements. Done by hand or compression suit, the body is massaged in a sweeping motions toward the heart.

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

Uses for Lymphatic Drainage

Lymphatic drainage was initially developed in the 1930s by Danish physicians Emil and Estrid Vodder as a treatment for lymphedema (a condition marked by swelling and the buildup of lymph in the body's soft tissues, usually as the result of infection, injury, cancer treatment, surgery, or genetic disorders affecting the lymph system). Lymphedema can cause a range of symptoms, such as leg or arm heaviness, weakness, and pain.

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

In addition, lymphatic drainage is sometimes used for people dealing with such issues as arthritis, orthopedic injuries, knee or hip surgery, systemic sclerosis, chronic venous insufficiency, and swelling and fatigue associated with menopause.

Available at some spas, lymphatic massage is sometimes touted as a treatment for issues like post-exercise recovery, acne, cellulite, and eczema.


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:


In a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2015, for instance, scientists analyzed six 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 six studies, the report's authors concluded that manual lymphatic drainage is safe and may offer additional benefits to compression bandages for the reduction of swelling (particularly in women with mild-to-moderate swelling).

Other research suggests that lymphatic drainage may be comparable to compression bandages or exercise. A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management in 2015, for instance, compared compression bandaging and exercise to manual lymph drainage in women with lymphedema after mastectomy. After two weeks of intensive treatment and six months of maintenance, both treatments showed comparable results and improvement in quality of life.

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Lymphatic drainage shows promise in the treatment of fibromyalgia, suggests a report published in Manual Therapy in 2015. For the report, researchers reviewed 10 previously published clinical trials on the effects of massage on symptoms and quality of life in people with fibromyalgia. While myofascial release was found to have large, positive effects on pain, manual lymphatic drainage was found to be better than connective tissue massage for stiffness, depression, and quality of life.

Immune Boost

The lymphatic system houses and produces a class of white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are important players in our immune system. These cells include natural killer cells, B cells, and T cells, whose job is to identify and destroy pathogens, manage and clean up toxins in the body, and remove sick or malfunctioning cells. By keeping the lymphatic system healthy and moving, we flush out all the toxins and cellular breakdown of pathogens. Massage has shown to increase lymph flow by seven to nine times, which helps us move out those toxins, stimulate the production of lymphocytes, and keep the immune system running at optimal performance.

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

We may easily think of massage as a relaxing experience. It’s also shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Several studies, including one published in Supportive Care in Cancer, have shown that lymphatic massage given to breast cancer patients significantly improved their mental and emotional wellbeing, reducing stress, improving mood, and even combating metrics of depression. Even if you’re not facing a major illness, lymphatic compression massage can do wonders for improving mood, a sense of peace, and your emotional wellbeing.

Side Effects and Precautions

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

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Inflammation or infection of the lymphatic vessels
  • Increased risk of blood clotting
  • Skin infection
  • Post-surgery lymphedema marked by localized swelling

The Takeaway

If you have symptoms of lymphedema, your health care provider may order tests to identify the cause of the swelling.

If you're considering the use of lymphatic drainage in the treatment of a condition, it's important to consult your health care provider to see if it's the best course of treatment for you. Compression therapy and exercise may be recommended, and those with severe lymphedema may need further treatment.

If you’re interested in learning more about how lymphatic drainage massage can help you, reach out to us at SaunaBar and schedule an appointment today.