If you’ve ever had a massage, you may have been told it was good for “draining your lymph.” But in your blissed-out state, you may not have thought to ask what exactly the lymph is, and why on earth you would need to drain it with a lymphatic drainage massage.
With the ongoing quest to bring more wellness and relaxation into our lives, lymphatic massages are becoming a more common topic of conversation. Here’s the breakdown on what it is, and whether or not it’s something you should consider adding into your weekly self-care routine.
What Is the Lymphatic System?
According to Medline Plus, the lymphatic system — or the lymph system, for short — consists of organs, nodes, ducts, and vessels that make and move lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. Lymph itself is a fluid made of white blood cells and chyle (a fluid from the intestines that contains proteins and fats).
“The lymphatic system allows for fluid lost from the capillaries to be returned to the circulation,” explains Peter Tiidus, Ph.D., dean, faculty of applied health sciences at Brock University. “It will also contain some byproducts of [the] immune system and other processes, such [as] proteins. It can be seen as a ‘secondary’ circulatory system.”
What Is Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
In general, a lymphatic massage uses gentle, light, rhythmic strokes to encourage the flow of lymph and normal activity of the lymph system. “The main technique is to apply pressure along vital lymph nodes while gently stroking the skin to manually ‘move’ congested lymph fluid toward the body’s main draining sites and detoxification channels to promote cleansing and healing,” explains Brian Clement, Ph.D., director of Hippocrates Health Institute.
However, research has yet to identify the best techniques and optimal frequency of lymph massages, note the authors of a 2008 paper in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.
Keep in mind that there is no standard lymphatic drainage massage. Just like a deep tissue massage is never the same from massage therapist to massage therapist — or even from massage to massage with the same therapist — a lymphatic drainage massage also varies. You might also hear it called lymphatic massage, lymph drainage massage, or simply lymph massage.
Lymphatic Drainage Massage Benefits
Ask anyone who performs manual lymph drainage (MLD) and they may tell you the technique helps detoxify the body, support the immune system, relieve pain, reduce bloating and fluid retention, and clear “sluggish” tissues. Some sites even claim that lymphatic drainage massage can help with acne, migraines, multiple sclerosis, sports injuries, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, cellulite, and more.
Now, some claims have decent scientific backing. For example, MLD was shown to reduce post-exercise blood lactate and muscle tension in a small group of athletes, according to a recent Polish study.
But there are a ton of other benefits that are not scientifically proven. “Many alternative therapies, including lymph massage, are not fully evidence-based,” Tiidus says. “The benefits might be happening, but the hard evidence to show this is happening in humans is almost nonexistent. The benefits are based on a hopeful outlook rather than any evidence.”
Even the use of manual lymphatic drainage for lymphedema (when fluid builds up in the tissues, causing swelling) after breast cancer treatment needs more research to be verified, according to a 2015 Cochrane Review.
And many benefits reported in studies are not necessarily due to this specific massage alone. There’s research on the effect of lymphatic drainage on migraines which shows it might help, but also might not be any better than traditional massage in some ways.
Lastly, regarding the claim about draining toxins from your body, “there aren’t toxins in there,” Tiidus says. “Those are part of normal muscle metabolic processes.”
Whatever the potential benefits may be, the bottom line is that more research is necessary to be fully conclusive.
The Risks of Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Based on the science, no one needs to have their lymph drained. But let’s face it — massage feels good. So for most people, it’s totally fine to have lymphatic massages every now and then if you have the time and the money. However, if you have blood clots, a skin infection, or an active disease in the involved lymph drainage areas, it’s best to avoid massage, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Overall, “lymph massage is probably low-risk ‘therapy.’ It doesn’t really have harmful effects,” Tiidus says. “But it may be oversold as to what it might or might not be doing.”