Home > Health Articles > Moving Water: Alleviate Swelling and Congestion with Lymphatic Drainage Massage

We are all familiar with the image of blood pumping through our veins like rivers. Pumped by our heart, this ruby-red fluid is crucial to life, providing oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body. Yet, we have another fluid-based circulatory system that is also vital but not as widely known called the lymphatic system. Though these two systems are connected, they are quite different. Whereas the famous deep-red blood ever so present in popular vampire films contains a mix of cells including reddish ones which give its color; our lymphatic system carries a clear or whitish/yellow substance which is composed of something called lymph. The lymph is lacking in red blood cells, thus giving it the clearer color. Affectionately known as mucus, pus, and the like when infection is present, lymph is not pretty or glamorous when contaminated but clear as spring water when healthy.

As our blood stream provides our body with life-sustaining energy; our lymphatic system functions to defend our bodies against disease while bathing our cells and tissues in moisture. It also helps with the absorption of fat. The actual lymph fluid, which carries these disease-fighting agents and provides hydration, travels through our body in vessels similar to veins. It passes through little nodules or reservoirs called lymph nodes. The lymph is made, stored and purified here. These nodes are plentiful and can even be felt in areas such as our necks, armpits and groin. When we have a sore throat, we can often feel swollen lymph nodes in our neck. These nodes and the area have swelled up with lymphatic fluid in order to fight the infection. Even though it is a helping process, the area can become uncomfortable due to the pressure. When this type of painful swelling occurs it is called edema or lymphedema. This basically means that the lymphatic channels have clogged up like a drain and fluid is moving slowly. It can eventually build-up or pool in an area causing pain, redness, heat and congestion. What does this look like? Anything from a sinus infection to an irritated, swollen knee. (For a more thorough list see below.)

It might be easier to think of our lymph as water moving through channels and reservoirs when it finally reunites again with the sea, or blood. In fact, the archaic meaning of lymph is a spring or stream of pure, clear water. Since our bodies are approximately 80% water, it is easy to imagine how important it is to have a hydrating and cleansing system such as this one! We would be very uncomfortable and quick to deteriorate if our bodies were dry and brittle. Human beings are essentially fluid organisms. We can be vital with healthy cells and an effective shock absorption system but just as easily can become polluted and stiff with toxic matter. Picture a stream which has twigs, leaves and maybe some garbage stuck in part of it cutting off the flow. What happens behind it? Either the water tries to flow around it or it stagnates and becomes swampy. Such is our lymph.

The lymph can move either quickly or slowly, just like a stream, depending on what is in the way. So, the questions may arise, "how can we keep our lymph moving at a healthy pace?", and "what is in our body that might block the lymphatic pathways?". First of all, let’s address how the lymph moves so we can better understand how to help it flow.

The lymph system does not have a central pump such as a heart. Rather, the lymphatic vessels themselves, which can be compared to a string of beads, act like several tiny pumps pushing the fluid along. The movement itself depends on other factors such as muscular movement, pressure changes, breathing, beating of the heart, blinking, yawning, sneezing and other natural movements inside the body. This means that movement is a key factor for moving our lymph, regardless of how small. The natural movements of our bodies keep the lymph moving. Exercise does improve lymphatic flow but not in all areas especially those directly under the skin. For these areas, external factors such as gravity and lymphatic drainage massage, or LDM, can help the already natural process which is in place. The movement of the lymph can increase up to twenty times with the application of lymphatic drainage massage. This can speed up the healing process, reducing pain, inflammation and scarring.

LDM is a hands-on manual technique administered by a massage or lymphatic drainage therapist. There is a general full body treatment that is done by “feathering” or brushing the skin or, more of a specific treatment for problem areas. With either treatment the direction of the massage is always towards the heart, where the lymph enters the bloodstream and is purified. The feathering is done with light finger pressure or a brush over the skin addressing all areas generally. It could be compared to a full-body relaxation massage in the sense that it increases overall circulation but does not address a specific area or problem. Specific lymphatic drainage massage will work with moving the lymph in one area of the body where it is stuck or inhibited. This type of LDM is applied in a repetitive manner which mimics the natural flow of lymph. It is done with light, rhythmic pressure only moving the skin and the pathways directly below it. The pressure is light due to the fact that most lymph nodes lie directly under the skin, with the exception of the abdomen where pressure is firmer since pathways lie deeper. Hard pressure on the nodes or vessels actually compresses them which impedes the flow temporarily and works against what is trying to be achieved. The filaments that hold the lymphatic vessels in place can even tear with very deep pressure, but the good news is they repair themselves within 24 hours.

The way in which LDM works is that the rhythmic and timed massage of the skin pulls the underlying lymph canals and nodes and encourages increased movement and fluidity. It is especially effective because the therapist is copying the natural flow and pace of the lymph. With LDM, the pumping action of the lymph vessels is encouraged and the speed of the flow increases. The therapist can also manually move the lymph around an area where it is unable to move through, for example when nodes have been removed or severe scarring is present. Some other conditions which can impede the flow of lymph are inactivity, injuries and scar tissue, surgery, a viral or bacterial infection, radiation therapy, hormonal changes, allergies, burns and even emotional trauma or stress. These conditions present themselves in a variety of ways and respond well to LDM therapy.

Some are:

  • Musculoskeletal: Ankle Sprain/Strain, Muscle and Ligament Tears, Hematoma/Bruising, Fracture, Frozen or Dislocated Shoulder, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tendonitis and Bursitis, Osteoarthritis, Low Back Pain or any Chronic Soft Tissue Pain, Post Fracture Atrophy, Whiplash, Neck Pain, Osteoporosis
  • Dermatology: Acne, Allergic Dermatosis, Leg Ulcers, Eczema, Surgical and Burn Scars, Cellulite
  • Internal Medicine: Chronic or Frequent Colds and Flu, Bronchial Asthma, Colitic, Allergies, Hay Fever, Chronic Constipation, Primary Lymphedema (malformation of blood or lymph vessels), Cancers (with physician’s approval), Sluggish Immune System
  • Neurology: Tension Headache, Migraine, Stress Reduction, Post Stroke Syndrome, Neuralgia, Concussion, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Fatigue
  • Ear Eyes Nose and Throat: Sinusitis, Menier’s Syndrome, Chronic Tonsillitis, Post Tooth Extraction, Post Oral Surgery, During Glaucoma and Detached Retina
  • Surgery: Post Mastectomy Edema, Secondary Lymphedema (from infection, injury, radiation, scarring or parasite), Post Vein Stripping, Varicose Veins and Spider Veins, Pre-Surgery(preparation), Post-Surgery(recovery), Pre and Post Cosmetic Surgery, Post Amputation
  • Reproductive: PMS Fluid Retention, Swollen Breasts due to birth control pills, hormonal fluctuations or restrictive clothing
  • LDM can also be very relaxing and beneficial for psychological/emotional issues such as anxiety or depression.

There are in fact many benefits in receiving LDM but there are occasions when it is not recommended or requires some investigation or approval from your doctor. In the case of edema, though LDM was developed to treat it, it is important to know the cause especially with chronic edema before receiving treatment. Post surgery, LDM is done with the approval of and in conjunction with a physician. In regards to serious injuries and accidents, any serious underlying conditions should be ruled out prior to treatment. Also, for any skin condition that is acute, contagious, open or discharging fluid; these areas need to heal before massaging. Some other conditions during which LDM is not recommended is congestive heart failure or heart attack/surgery in past year, some chronic infections, fever, if major organs are damaged, kidney dialysis, during or after an asthma attack (when under control can have short sessions until tolerance is determined), during an acute allergic reaction, some thyroid conditions and blood clots or phlebitis.

Following are some pointers for your first LDM session. For a specific lymphatic issue, make sure you ask for a therapist who has had special training in LDM. For more general lymphatic massage, any well-trained massage therapist can provide you with a beneficial, relaxing treatment. Milder issues will take less time to resolve. Serious conditions will usually require a series of sessions. For a very specific area, such as the face, one session can provide relief if the swelling is minimal. For moderate swelling, up to three sessions a week is recommended at which time an assessment will be made on the client’s progress. For severe lymphedema, the treatments may last over weeks and sometimes months but the results are extraordinary and often life-saving. Be prepared to remove clothing if the area being worked is covered. After your treatment, especially if a lot of toxins have been shifted and moved, you may experience sluggishness as your body goes through a detoxification process. This could last a day but should not last longer. After this, the body will have clearer lymphatic pathways and will restore itself to health, depending on the severity of the condition. To conclude, lymphatic drainage massage will assist the body in its natural process of hydration and detoxification and can reverse existing problems or edema related to sluggish lymph.