Lymphatic drainage massage is a form of gentle massage that encourages the movement of lymph fluids around the body.

The fluid in the lymphatic system helps remove waste and toxins from body tissues. Some health conditions can cause lymph fluid to build up. Lymphatic drainage massages can benefit people with lymphedema, fibromyalgia, or other conditions.

In this article, we discuss the benefits of lymphatic massage, who may find it useful, and how a person can prepare for and perform it at home.

Lymphatic massage, sometimes called manual lymphatic drainage, is a specialized type of medical massage. It can help treat lymphedema, in which lymphatic fluid collects in certain areas of the body because it cannot drain away effectively.

Lymphatic massage aims to improve the flow of lymph fluid, which should reduce swelling.

Massaging an area without swelling will make space for fluid to flow to those parts from more congested areas.

There are two types of lymphatic drainage: manual and simple.

Manual lymphatic drainage is done by a qualified therapist, whereas simple lymphatic drainage is a technique a person can use at home.

Anyone planning on learning simple lymphatic drainage should learn how to do it from a specialist. It is essential to know which area to massage and how much pressure to use.

The lymphatic system plays a key role in the body’s immune defenses.

Lymphatic fluid flows through lymph vessels, which connect lymph nodes. As it passes through the lymph nodes, white blood cells trap and destroy harmful particles, such as bacteria.

Like blood in the circulatory system, lymphatic fluid is always moving. If it stops, swelling can occur, as lymph fluid builds up, often in the arms or legs. Health experts call this lymphedema.

Lymphatic massage usually forms part of a treatment program health experts call decongestive lymphatic therapy (DLT).

DLT for lymphedema includes:

  • lymphatic drainage massage
  • compression garments
  • exercise
  • skin care

Together, these can improve circulation throughout the lymphatic system and help manage symptoms of lymphedema, including:

  • swelling in the extremities — such as the arms, legs, hands, or feet — which can affect mobility
  • swelling in other parts of the body, including the chest, breast, shoulder, face, and groin
  • pain and changes in sensation
  • a feeling of heaviness
  • difficulty fitting into clothing

Lymphedema can benefit people who have a buildup of lymphatic fluid due to:

  • cancer and cancer treatments that involve the removal of lymph nodes
  • filariasis, which is infestation of the lymph nodes by a parasite carried by mosquitoes
  • some types of vascular surgery, such as vein stripping
  • burn scar excision
  • lipectomy, a type of surgery to remove fat from the body
  • infection or trauma in the lymphatic system
  • a buildup of fluid due to deep vein thrombosis
  • health conditions that affect blood flow to the extremities, such as the hands and feet

Lymphatic buildup affects around 20% of females who have had treatment for breast cancer.

The authors of a 2015 review conclude that lymphatic massage might be more effective than connective tissue massage in relieving symptoms of stiffness and depression in people living with fibromyalgia.

A doctor may recommend lymphatic massage as part of a person’s treatment plan. If anyone believes they have lymphedema, they should ask a doctor about this option. They should not use lymphatic massage without consulting a doctor first.

It is of note that this type of massage may not be suitable or safe for some people, for example, if they have cellulitis or a heart condition.

Trained professionals provide lymphatic massage, but they can teach an individual basic drainage techniques to use at home. A doctor or other professional can advise on safe ways to drain lymphatic fluid.

People can perform most of these exercises either standing, sitting, or lying down, as long as they are comfortable.

Keep the following tips in mind during a lymphatic massage:

  • These massage movements should affect only the skin, so use gentle pressure and do not press hard enough to feel the muscles.
  • Keep the hands relaxed.
  • Do not massage swollen or infected areas.
  • Do not massage areas of the body that have undergone treatment for cancer.
  • Drink extra fluids, ideally 2–4 glasses of water, after each massage to help flush the body.
  • During the massage, there should be no pain or skin reddening.
  • Do not use lotions or other products, only the hands.

How to prepare

The following methods will stimulate the lymphatic system and prepare the lymph nodes to bring in more fluid before a lymphatic massage.

1. Lymphatic breathing

Deep breathing acts like a pump that helps move fluid through the vessels and lymph nodes. Follow the steps below:

  1. Place both hands on the ribs.
  2. Take slow, deep breaths and feel the air move down to the abdomen.
  3. Slowly sigh the air out through the mouth.
  4. Rest between breaths and repeat 5 times.

2. Prepare the front of the neck

  1. Place the index and middle fingers of each hand on either side of the neck, just below the earlobe.
  2. Stretch the skin by gently sliding the fingers down toward the shoulders, then release.
  3. Repeat 5 times.
  4. Move the hands down and repeat until you have massaged the whole neck.

3. Prepare the side of the neck

  1. Place the palm of each hand on either side of the neck below the ears.
  2. Slowly move both hands down and back.

4. Prepare the back of the neck

  1. Place the palms of the hands on the back of the neck near the hairline.
  2. Gently slide the hands together down the neck toward the spine.

5. Prepare under the arms

Prepare the lymph nodes under the arms to help them accept lymph fluid from other areas of the body. Do not perform this movement on areas that doctors have treated for cancer. Follow these steps:

  1. Cup the palm under the armpit.
  2. Gently pump the palm upward and toward the body.
  3. Repeat on the other arm.

6. Prepare behind the knees

  1. Place both hands behind the knee so that the fingers point toward each other.
  2. Pump the back of the knee by gently pressing the hands into the back of the knee and rolling them upward.
  3. Repeat on the other knee.

Upper body massage techniques

Use the following techniques to help drain lymph fluid from the chest, shoulder, and upper arm.

To massage the chest:

  1. Place the palm flat on the opposite side of the chest, slightly above the breast.
  2. Move the hand up the chest and over the collarbone.
  3. Continue up the neck until the skin covering the chest feels tight, then release.

To massage the shoulder:

  1. Rest the arm on a table or armrest.
  2. Place the other hand on the shoulder of the resting arm.
  3. Move the hand over the back of the shoulder and toward the neck.

To massage the upper arm:

  1. Rest the arm on a table or armrest.
  2. Place the middle two fingers of the other hand on the inside of the upper arm below the shoulder.
  3. Gently slide the fingers toward the outside of the upper arm.
  4. Wrap the hand around the outside of the upper arm.
  5. Gently move the hand back toward the inside of the arm.

To massage the full arm:

  1. Begin at the shoulder.
  2. Use the palm to stretch the skin upward.
  3. Move the hand down to the upper arm and stretch the skin up toward the shoulder.
  4. Continue down the arm, always moving the skin upward.
  5. Stop at the wrist.

To massage the fingers:

  1. Start at the base of the swollen finger close to the palm.
  2. Use the index finger and thumb to stretch the skin on the finger toward the hand.
  3. Continue this motion over the entire finger.
  4. Remember to direct fluid toward the hand.

Lower body massage techniques

Start the massage at the top of the leg and work down toward the foot. Use a pillow or stool for support.

To massage the upper leg:

  1. Start at the top of the leg.
  2. Put one hand on the inside of the opposite thigh near the groin and place the other hand on the buttock.
  3. Gently stretch the skin by moving the hand on the inside of the thigh toward the outside of the thigh and up.
  4. Move the hands farther down the leg and repeat the stretching movement above.
  5. Stop above the knee.

To massage the lower leg:

  1. Start right below the knee.
  2. Place one hand on the shin and the other hand on the back of the calf.
  3. Gently stretch the skin upward.
  4. Continue this motion, working down toward the ankle and the top of the foot.
  5. Always use upward strokes.

To massage the toes, use the thumb and index finger and stroke the skin from the tip of each toe toward the base.

It is vital to always end the massage by drinking extra fluids.

Those who use lymphatic drainage massages may notice that their swelling reduces. At the very least, swelling should not worsen.

People who have lymphedema should continue using compression socks or sleeves to prevent swelling.

Individuals with fibromyalgia might experience less stiffness and pain and also notice improvements in their overall health status.

People can also boost their lymphatic system function and help remove more waste from the body using the following methods:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • engaging in physical activity
  • eating vegetables and fruits
  • limiting their intake of processed foods

Here are some questions people often ask about lymphatic drainage.

What does a lymphatic drainage massage do?

It aims to reduce swelling by relieving the buildup of lymph fluid in people with lymphedema or other conditions.

Is lymphatic drainage massage legit?

Many doctors recommend manual lymphatic drainage for managing lymphedema. However, a person should start by working with a trained professional, who will teach them how to do a simplified version at home.

How often should you get a lymphatic drainage massage?

For the best effects, a professional may recommend lymphatic drainage from once per month to once per week. For home use, they may also advise the person massage one to two body parts per day.

Brief, regular home treatment can provide a short, daily relaxation experience and may benefit the lymphatic system.

How can I drain my lymphatic system at home?

Simple lymphatic drainage techniques are suitable for home use, as described in this article.

How painful is lymphatic massage?

It should not be painful. The fingers will stroke the skin very lightly. However, if there is any pain or redness, a person should stop the massage and consult a specialist for guidance.

A person can use lymphatic drainage massage techniques to help reduce swelling and improve circulation. An effectively functioning lymphatic system is essential for overall health.

People who think that they could benefit from a lymphatic drainage massage should speak with a physical therapist, preferably one who specializes in treating lymphedema.