How (And Why) To Do Lymphatic Drainage Massage On Yourself
You may be familiar with the gentle, soothing effects of Swedish massage, or the deep and sometimes intense pressure that Rolfing or deep tissue massage offers. But, there's another type of massage you should know about if you want to help your body detox naturally.
It's called lymphatic drainage massage therapy, or Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD). When you see all the benefits, you'll want to know how to do it, and we'll show you!
In this article:
- What is Lymphatic Drainage Massage Therapy?
- The Lymphatic System—Your First Line of Defense Against Disease
- What are the Benefits of Lymphatic Massage?
- How To Perform Lymphatic Drainage Massage On Yourself
- Other Ways to Help Keep Your Lymph Flowing
- Who Should Not Do Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
- Final Thoughts On Lymphatic Drainage Massage
What is Lymphatic Drainage Massage Therapy?
Lymphatic drainage massage is a hands-on therapy using light pressure with circular and pumping movements that encourage the movement of lymph fluid throughout the body.
This type of therapy involves a series of stretching, cupping, and gliding motions designed to stimulate the lymphatic system and increase the flow of lymph through the tissues and lymph nodes, where toxins and debris are filtered out.
It is a very gentle, rhythmic type of massage and one that is usually performed without massage oil. While there are therapists who are trained in lymphatic drainage therapy, you can also learn to do it for yourself.
Many spas and resorts have just recently embraced this therapy, but it is a technique that has been around for more than 100 years.
Today, lymphatic drainage massage is a technique that is growing in popularity and is already widely used in Europe, particularly Germany, where it is the most prescribed type of physical therapy.1
World-wide, it's well-established for the treatment of lymphedema—swelling of the lymph nodes caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, often occurring in the arms and legs following the removal or damage to lymph nodes as part of cancer treatments.
Before looking at what other benefits lymphatic drainage massage therapy provides, let’s review the lymph system and its overall importance to your health and wellness.
The Lymphatic System—Your First Line of Defense Against Disease
Your lymphatic system is an integral part of your immune system—your first line of defense against disease and foreign invaders. It's made up of lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and lymph (a clear, colorless fluid that contains lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell).
Your tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus are all a part of this remarkable system that is designed to help rid the body of toxins, waste, excess fluid between your cells, and other unwanted material such as viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells.
Interesting fact: There are over 600 lymph nodes in your body with the largest groupings occurring in your neck, armpits, and groin area.
How Does Lymph Move In The Body?
Lymph moves through the lymphatic system in a somewhat similar way that blood flows in the veins. I like to say that while blood “brings in the groceries,” the lymph “takes out the trash!”
Unlike your circulatory system, which has a heart that keeps your blood flowing through your body, your lymph system has no organ that keeps the lymph fluid moving. It also flows in only one direction—up towards your neck. So how does lymph accomplish this upward climb without a built-in pump?
Contraction of the smooth muscles in the walls of the lymphatic vessels as well as the contraction of our skeletal muscles when we move are both responsible for helping the lymph maintain an upward flow.
Sometimes the flow is sluggish or even clogged up, and your body is unable to detoxify well.
Lymphatic drainage massage, like dry brushing your skin, is a great way to stimulate lymphatic flow, and while there are therapists who can do it for you, you can also learn to do it for yourself (I've even made an illustrated lymphatic drainage how-to chart you can print for free, or save it to your device for easy reference!).
What Are the Benefits of Lymphatic Massage?
In today’s world of chemicals, toxins, and pollutants, our bodies need all the help they can get to detoxify and rid us of these harmful products. Not only are we bombarded by poisons, but we are now faced with the effects of a wired nation and the human-made electromagnetic fields that we cannot see, but that deeply affect us.
Did you know that over 4 billion pounds of toxic industrial chemicals are released into the nation’s environment every year?2 And that these chemicals include 72 million pounds that are known carcinogens?
[Related: Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid]
The main detoxification pathways are the liver, kidneys, colon, lungs, skin, and lymphatic system. Supporting these pathways by undergoing a yearly cleanse (at least! I go on a detox a minimum of twice a year) is the best way to support a body overburdened with pollutants, and increasing the flow and removal of toxins through lymphatic massage is a great addition to your cleansing routine.
In addition to general detoxification, there are several imbalances and illnesses that can be helped by lymphatic massage.3
The pain and fatigue that those who have fibromyalgia experience can be overwhelming. A meta-analysis of effective styles of massage therapy for fibromyalgia found that “manual lymphatic drainage is superior to connective tissue massage regarding stiffness, depression, and quality of life.”4
Stimulating lymph flow results in reducing the presence of inflammatory agents in soft tissues, thereby reducing inflammation and relieving pain.
[Related: Reduce Inflammation Naturally]
Cellulite is a concentrated collection of fat cells and connective tissue, right under the subcutaneous level of your skin. Manual lymphatic drainage helps reduce this build-up by increasing circulation and moving the lymph, helping your body rid itself of toxins held in the fat cells.5
The abdominal area is rich in lymphatic vessels and a blockage in these can create symptoms such as constipation, bloating, and swelling.6
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals found in our everyday environment that interfere with our hormone systems. These manipulators mimic hormones, throwing the endocrine system out of balance. They are found in pesticides, plastics, water, soil, cosmetics, medications, and our food. The cleansing effects of lymphatic drainage massage can help the body clear out endocrine disruptors and re-establish natural hormone balance.
The Journal of Lymphology reported that a migraine headache can be suppressed effectively, and even stopped, by performing manual lymph drainage at an early stage.7
The lymphatic system is responsible for collecting and removing excess fluid found between your cells. Swelling due to fluid retention can be greatly improved through this type of massage therapy.
On a related note: Did you know that water retention is often caused by not drinking enough water? Like a camel storing water in its hump because of the dry terrain it inhabits, your body will store water if it is in “drought” conditions and not receiving enough water.
Lymphatic drainage massage is often used to help reduce the swelling in the arms or legs due to the accumulation of lymph fluid that has been caused by damaged or removed lymph nodes following traditional cancer treatments.
These unsightly swollen and twisted blood vessels are often caused by blood pooling in the veins and, ultimately, damaging the walls. This pooling and damage can occur when sitting or standing for long periods of time. The light strokes in lymphatic drainage massage are ideal for getting flow to both the blood vessels and lymph system, and speed the healing of tissues affected by stagnant circulation.8
Soft Tissue Injuries Such As Sprains Or Strains
While a lymphatic drainage massage may not accelerate the healing of a torn ligament or tendon, it will relieve the edema or swelling that accompanies this type of injury.
According to a research psychologist at the University of Miami Medical School, massage, in general, can significantly reduce the pain suffered by people with all different types of arthritis.9
Stress, Depression & Fatigue
Clinical practice guidelines for health care providers include massage as one approach for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.10 Cleansing the body of toxins also reduces the stress and depression that is associated with a body overburdened with poisons.
John Ossipinsky, developer of LymphPractic, put his clients through a one-hour lymphatic drainage session for three consecutive days. The second night they became depressed, anxious, aggressive, and experienced insomnia as a result of the detoxification process. On night three, they felt much better. 11
How To Perform Lymphatic Drainage Massage On Yourself
There are different techniques that allow you to perform lymphatic drainage massage therapy on yourself. It’s a great way to help detox your body and a practice that you can easily fit into your daily schedule in just a few minutes.
I've made all these lymphatic drainage massage illustrated steps available in a free, printable PDF. Download it here and save it to your device for easy reference!
Steps For Lymphatic Drainage Self-Massage
- Step 1: Lie down in a comfortable position on your back and take some deep, slow breaths, feeling the rise and fall of your abdomen. Continue this type of breathing for the remainder of the massage.
- Step 2: Cross your arms across your chest and, with fingers touching the top of your shoulders, lift your elbows up toward the ceiling several times. This movement flushes the lymphatic area beneath your clavicle.
- Step 3: With arms still crossed, massage from the outside of your neck, just above your collarbone, to the center, in one soft movement. You can do both sides at the same time. Repeat this and the following massage strokes about 10 times.
- Step 4: Stretch the front, back, and sides of your neck. This is accomplished in three strokes by placing your hands at the very top of your neck and, using gentle pressure, stretching the skin down towards the base of the neck.
- Step 5: Put one hand under your head and, with the other hand, cup your palm and gently pull the skin, starting at the top of your underarm, up and in toward your body.
- Step 6: Place your arms at your sides with palms up and gently pull the skin on the inside of your elbow towards your shoulder.
- Step 7: In order to help release the fluid in your legs, place both hands behind your knees and, with fingers interlaced, gently stretch the skin up towards the thigh.
- Step 8: Place one hand behind your head and, with your other hand and starting at your hip, stretch the skin up towards your armpit. Repeat this several times, working your way up the side of your body.
- Step 9: In order to work on your arms and legs, simply start at the endpoint (fingers and toes) and gently slide your hand(s) up towards your armpit or groin, respectively.
Remember that lymphatic massage is very gentle.
Get a copy of these steps in a free, printable PDF!
Lymphatic Massage Tips
- Think along the lines of stretching your skin rather than digging into your muscles. In fact, if you can feel your muscles, you’re using too much pressure. Also, use the flat of your hand instead of your fingertips, which helps to stimulate lymph flow.
- Be sure to drink lots of clean water following a lymphatic massage in order to help flush out the toxins.
In addition to massage, there are other lifestyle habits that you can adopt that will help keep your lymph system operating at peak performance.
Other Ways to Help Keep Your Lymph Flowing
Movement stimulates the flow of lymph. Working out on a rebounder is especially useful because of the change in gravitational pull which opens the lymphatic valves, causing an increase in lymphatic drainage.
- Dry Brushing Your Skin
I perform this basic ritual every day and find it especially beneficial and relaxing when I’m in my infrared sauna. Dry brushing your skin not only activates the lymph system, but also unclogs your skin’s pores and supports your largest organ of elimination in removing toxins. I’ve got a great how-to video for dry brushing, plus a free skin brushing instruction chart you can print and post wherever you do your dry brushing.
Who Should Not Do Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
Keep in mind that if you have certain conditions, lymphatic massage is not recommended for you. These conditions include congestive heart failure, clots, infections, or circulatory problems. Moving too much fluid too quickly can put a strain on the heart, and increasing lymph flow can cause an acute infection to spread. If you have a fever, wait until it passes before scheduling your lymphatic massage.
Final Thoughts On Lymphatic Drainage Massage
You don’t have to be experiencing a chronic disease or going through a detoxification process in order to consider finding someone in your area who performs manual lymphatic drainage massage. You may want to consider scheduling a lymphatic massage in order to revitalize and rejuvenate your body on a monthly basis. In the meantime, you can follow the steps for lymphatic drainage massage yourself, and shift away from lifestyle choices that increase your toxic load.
Robyn Openshaw, MSW, is the bestselling author of The Green Smoothies Diet, 12 Steps to Whole Foods, and 2017’s #1 Amazon Bestseller and USA Today Bestseller, Vibe. Learn more about how to make the journey painless, from the nutrient-scarce Standard American Diet, to a whole-foods diet, in her free video masterclass 12 Steps to Whole Foods.
- Manual Lymph Drainage History (MLD). Dr. Vodder School International. https://vodderschool.com/manual_lymph_drainage_history
- Pollution Locator: Toxic Chemical Releases. Scorecard. http://scorecard.goodguide.com/env-releases/us-map.tcl
- Eske, Jamie. How to Perform a Lymphatic Drainage Massage. Medical News Today. 02/2019. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324518.php
- King Yuan, Susan Lee. Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: A systemic review and meta-analysis. Manual Therapy. 04/2015. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1356689X14001829
- Hou, Kathleen. How French Women Combat Cellulite. The Cut. 05/2014.https://www.thecut.com/2014/05/how-french-women-combat-cellulite.html
- Alexander, J.S. et al. Gastrointestinal Lymphatics in Health and Disease. Pathophysiology. 09/2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3026597/
- Trettin, H. Manual lymph drainage in migraine treatment—a pathophysiologic explanatory model. Journal of Lymphology. 07/1989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2672665
- Jordan, Kate. What about Varicose Veins? Massage Today. 05/2009. https://www.massagetoday.com/articles/10245/What-about-Varicose-Veins
- Bernstein, Susan. Types of Massage. Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/treatments/natural/other-therapies/massage/massage-types.php
- Massage Therapy: What You Need to Know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/massage/massageintroduction.htm
- Ossipinsky, John. Podcast 46 Insomnia Can Be Helped With Lymphatic System Detoxification. Ossipinsky Health Academy. 11/2017. https://ossipinskyhealthacademy.com/insomnia-helped-lymphatic-system-detoxification/
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