Lymphatic drainage massage

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated 22nd June 2023 | Next update due 21st June 2026

Lymphatic drainage massage is a very specific type of massage that targets the lymphatic system. Here, we’ll take a closer look at lymphatic drainage massage, including its benefits and what you can expect from a session. 

What is lymphatic drainage massage? 

Lymphatic drainage massage is a type of massage that focuses specifically on the lymphatic system. Its main function is to help reduce swelling in the body which occurs when lymph fluid is unable to drain away as it should. It works by manipulating this fluid around the body, allowing it to flow more freely. This type of massage is often referred to as ‘manual lymphatic drainage’, though this is actually just one form of this therapy:

  • Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) – This uses the hands and is conducted by a therapist. 
  • Simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) – This type is a form of self-massage. Your therapist will usually teach you techniques that you can perform on yourself. 
  • Mechanical lymphatic drainage – This is a form of massage that uses tools such as compression devices. 

Lymphatic drainage massage is most commonly used to help treat lymphoedema. This is when areas of the body swell due to the lymphatic system being damaged. 

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What is lymphoedema? 

Lymphoedema is a swelling that occurs when something affects the lymphatic system. It most commonly causes swelling in the arms and legs, though it can be any part of the body. Lymphoedema can be caused by genetics or damage to the lymphatic system, known as primary or secondary lymphoedema. 

Primary lymphoedema is caused by genetic mutations. This results in the lymphatic system being unable to drain away fluid as it should. This is much less common than secondary lymphoedema. 

Secondary lymphoedema is caused by trauma or damage to the lymphatic system. Some of the reasons that the system may become damaged include:

  • cancer surgery
  • radiotherapy 
  • infections (eg: cellulitis) 
  • psoriasis 
  • atopic eczema 
  • varicose veins 
  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT) 

Symptoms of lymphoedema:

  • aching or heaviness in the area
  • restricted or difficult movements 
  • repeated skin infections 
  • hard, tight or thickened skin 
  • fluid leaking through the skin
  • wart-like growths on the skin 

If you suspect that you have lymphoedema, we recommend consulting your GP or a lymphoedema specialist for further advice. 

Benefits of lymphatic drainage massage

Other health conditions that can benefit from lymphatic drainage massage include fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and lipedema. 

The main use of lymphatic drainage massage is to help relieve swelling, but there are thought to be a number of other wellness benefits such as:

  • reducing stress and fatigue 
  • supports recovery post-exercise 
  • supports scar tissue healing
  • easing tension 

What is the lymphatic system? 

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system. It helps protect our bodies from infections and diseases by carrying white blood cells which fight infection. Lymph nodes are located throughout our bodies, including in our groin, neck and armpits. There are around 600-800 lymph nodes in the adult body which are connected by lymph vessels.

Lymph fluid travels through our body via lymph vessels before draining into the bloodstream. The lymph fluid is important as it carries waste products back into the bloodstream, which the kidneys and liver remove. Our body then expells these through urine and bowel movements.

As well as preventing illness, the lymphatic system helps to balance fluid levels in the body.  If you are genetically predisposed to lymphoedema or there is damage to the lymphatic system, this can cause fluid to collect in parts of the body. It may be unable to drain away –  this is where lymphatic drainage massage is useful. 

How does lymphatic drainage massage work?

Lymphatic drainage massage uses slow, rhythmic, skin-stretching techniques. This helps manipulate lymph fluid from swollen areas of the body to areas that are not swollen. There are four strokes used in lymphatic drainage massage:

  • stationary circles 
  • scoop technique 
  • pump technique 
  • rotary technique 

Lymphatic drainage massage stimulates lymph vessels to work harder to move lymph fluid away from the areas of swelling.

Lymphatic drainage massage can be performed on yourself. This is called simple lymphatic drainage. It involves stretching the skin and releasing it using very gentle movements. Your therapist will show you how to do this so that you can continue treatment at home.

What to expect from a lymphatic drainage massage

During a lymphatic drainage massage, your therapist will usually have you lie down. If working on the head or neck, you’ll be sat. The sessions normally start and end with diaphragmatic breathing. This is designed to help open lymphatic pathways and increase the movement of fluid towards the heart.

Your therapist will then begin manipulating the lymph fluid using gentle massage techniques. No oils or lotions are used. This should not be painful, but you may feel some discomfort in the areas where you have experienced swelling.

This technique will lightly stretch the walls of the lymph vessels and encourage lymph drainage, leading to a general detoxification of the system.

Find out more about manual lymphatic drainage for natural body detox. 

After treatment, the therapist may bandage the area or you may be advised to wear a compression garment. The number of times a lymphatic massage will be needed will vary from person to person and will depend on how your treatment is going. Generally, it’s recommended to start with three sessions per week and gradually reduce the frequency of sessions to around once per month to see the best results. 

When should I have a lymphatic drainage massage?

As mentioned, lymphatic drainage massage is most commonly used to treat lymphoedema. This treatment is normally used when there is swelling and can also be used alongside pain management. If other therapies are no longer appropriate but comfort and pain relief are still needed, lymphatic drainage may be offered. An example may be in the case of palliative care

A common physical symptom of late pregnancy is swollen legs and ankles. As well as helping to relax and reduce stress, lymphatic drainage massage is effective at relieving these symptoms. If you are pregnant, we’d advise consulting your GP or midwife first. 

As lymphatic drainage is a very specific type of massage, a Swedish massage may be better suited to you if you’re looking to reduce stress or maintain well-being. 

Unsure whether lymphatic drainage is right for you? In this video, massage therapist Laura Dalby explains some of the common types of massage and their uses, to help you find the massage best suited to your needs. 

Who should not have lymphatic drainage?

There are some situations where lymphatic drainage massage may not be recommended. It’s best to speak to your healthcare professional or your massage therapist if you’re considering lymphatic drainage to ensure it’s right for you. 

Lymphatic drainage isn’t recommended in the following cases:

  • if you have an infection or inflammation in the swollen area
  • if you have cancer in the affected area
  • if you have heart problems
  • if you have a blood clot 

Finding a lymphatic drainage therapist 

If you feel you’d benefit from lymphatic drainage massage, you can find a qualified massage therapist near you on Therapy Directory. Take the time to browse our list of professionals so you can find a massage therapist that resonates with you. 

Disclaimer: At Therapy Directory we verify that massage practitioners have qualifications and insurance, or membership of a professional body, associated with massage only. We encourage you to check they have the specialised skills required to offer lymphatic drainage massage specifically.

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