What Exactly Is A Lymphatic Massage? Plus, How To Perform One At Home

Contributing writer By Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag.
Woman Receiving a Lymphatic Massage
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When you think about getting a massage, benefits like relaxation and muscle relief may come to mind. But what about a massage that may support a stronger immune system and more muscle tone? Well, those are some of the potential benefits of a lymphatic drainage massage.

This type of massage has been popularized recently as a way to reduce bloat and flush out toxins, but it's actually been used as a medicinal practice for some time. And unlike some overhyped beauty and wellness treatments, there's actually a good amount of science behind lymphatic massages. To get the scoop, mbg tapped a few experts to learn about the technique, and if it's actually legitimate. 

What exactly is the lymphatic system? 

Before discussing lymphatic massages, it's important to know what the lymphatic system is and what it does. To save you from a Googling spree, health coach at Modern Holistic Health Ivonne Boujaoude, DNM, explains the lymphatic system is a network of vessels and other organs that keeps body fluid in balance. "As a part of the immune system, it protects the body from pathogens, toxins, and waste products," she says. So essentially, it's a sanitation system that keeps waste out and nutrients properly running throughout the body. 

"Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have a pump, which means it's heavily dependent on movement," Boujaoude says. There are many factors that make the lymphatic system become sluggish or idle, and that's where a lymphatic drainage massage comes into play.

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So, what is a lymphatic massage?

Even though lymphatic massage is rising in popularity right now, the technique has been around for nearly 100 years. It was created in the 1930s by a man named Emil Vodder who lived in France. After some years, the massage became a go-to treatment for lymphedema, and then the technique made its way stateside in the 1970s.

According to Boujaoude, lymphatic drainage is often used as a way to aid the body's natural detox process. "This unique massage technique stimulates lymph flow and enhances the clearance of accumulated toxic waste in the body," Boujaoude says.

What does a lymphatic massage do?

Since the lymphatic system is dependent on movement, if that movement begins to stop or slow down, the system is not performing properly, and health concerns may arise. "The massage or drainage reduces swelling and improves circulation through the entire system," says functional medicine practitioner and author Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD. "The massage helps carry the waste products out of the system through muscle contractions and out with the bodily waste products like urine and stool." In short, the massage is meant to help bring movement back into the system, which is thought to result in a number of benefits.

Heather Jeffcoat, DPT at Femina Physical Therapy, says manual lymphatic drainage consists of specialized strokes and pressure that are performed in a certain sequence to increase movement. "These specialized hand movements follow the anatomy and physiology of the lymphatic system and should not be confused with a basic massage," she says.

What are the benefits?

The most common reason lymphatic drainage is used is for the treatment of lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling, often in the arms and legs. One study found that incorporating a lymphatic massage in addition to compression helped to decrease swelling in lymphedema patients. Additionally, there is some evidence that they can help with symptoms of insomnia, fibromyalgia, and orthopedic injuries

While there aren't many studies that confirm the benefits of lymphatic massage, anecdotally, they are also thought to help reduce bloat and aid the body's natural detox process. Boujaoude says lymphatic massage supports the immune system, improves digestion, calms the nervous system, and can even improve the appearance of the skin.

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How can you perform your own lymphatic massage at home?

Experts are divided on the topic of performing a lymphatic massage at home. While some believe you should leave this type of wellness treatment to the pros, Boujaoude says a DIY lymphatic massage is possible.

Like all massage techniques, you want to make sure you're relaxed and comfortable. Don't attempt to perform this massage when you're feeling stressed or rushed. You'll want to remove yourself from distractions and get in a comfortable location and position before you begin. Also, remember you're not massaging out any kinks or knots, so the pressure you want to apply is gentle and light. No force needed here.  

Once you've entered your quiet place, sit in a comfortable position. Boujaoude suggests grabbing a yoga mat or towel to put on the floor and sitting in a crisscross position with your back straight. Then, complete these steps:

  • To massage the neck: Locate the main collection ducts located in the hollow right above your collarbone. Apply light pressure and gently pull the skin down in a very slow motion. Repeat this on both sides. 
  • To massage auxiliary nodes under your armpits: Place the opposite hand under the armpit directly on the skin. Apply gentle pressure and "pulse gently up into the armpit at a slow pace." Repeat this on the opposite arm. 
  • To massage the stomach: Place both hands gently on your abdomen. "Next, inhale and gently push your abdomen into your hands," she says. "Then, exhale and gently push your navel into your spine." Repeat. 
  • To massage the legs: Lay the palm of your hands right at the crease of the thigh (thumb and index finger in the direction of your body). "Apply gentle pressure on the thighs toward the navel, using a wavelike motion." Repeat. 

Bottom line.

While more research is needed to confirm the benefits of a lymphatic drainage massage, it may help aid with immune health, digestion, and bloat, among other reported benefits. Try your own massage at home, or seek treatment from a professional

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