The Benefits of Lymphatic Drainage

lymphatic massage
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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.

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:

Lymphedema: 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 the quality of life.

Orthopedic Injuries or Surgery: Lymphatic drainage may not help treat swelling after knee surgery, according to a small study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2016. Participants in the study received either five manual lymph drainage treatments or a placebo (in addition to standard rehabilitation) between the second and seventh day after total knee replacement surgery.

While manual lymph drainage reduced pain immediately after treatment, on the seventh day and at three months, there was no difference in swelling, the range of motion, pain, knee function, and gait (with the exception of knee passive flexion contracture at 3 months) between the two groups.

Fibromyalgia: 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 the 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.

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.

Seek treatment from a qualified practitioner of this technique. Some physical therapists, physicians, nurses, and massage therapists are trained and licensed to practice lymphatic drainage.

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  1. Ezzo J, Manheimer E, McNeely ML, et al. Manual lymphatic drainage for lymphedema following breast cancer treatmentCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 May 21;(5):CD003475. doi10.1002/14651858.CD003475.pub2

  2. Gradalski T, Ochalek K, Kurpiewska J. Complex decongestive lymphatic therapy with or without Vodder II manual lymph drainage in more severe chronic postmastectomy upper limb lymphedema: A randomized noninferiority prospective studyJ Pain Symptom Manage. 2015 Dec;50(6):750-7. doi:10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2015.06.017

  3. Pichonnaz C, Bassin JP, Lécureux E, et al. Effect of manual lymphatic drainage after total knee arthroplasty: A randomized controlled trialArch Phys Med Rehabil. 2016 May;97(5):674-82. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2016.01.006

  4. Yuan SL, Matsutani LA, Marques AP. Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Man Ther. 2015 Apr;20(2):257-64. doi:10.1016/j.math.2014.09.003