Millions of people experience the swelling, redness, tenderness, and pain that result from edema and lymphedema. Edema involves a buildup of excess fluid in the arms, hands, ankles, and feet while lymphedema is due to a blockage in the lymphatic system that prevents the removal of this fluid.
Fortunately, both conditions are dramatically improved by a massage technique known as manual lymphatic drainage that can be done at home and takes only a few minutes.
Reduce swelling with lymphatic massage
Swelling is very common in the wrists, ankles, and feet because gravity causes fluid to move out of the bloodstream and into the spaces around cells. Massage removes the fluid by reversing this pressure and causing it to move back into the veins and lymph vessels. Even raising the arms and legs above the level of the heart will help to accomplish this. However, fluid can also accumulate as a result of a blockage in the lymphatic vessels. This may be the case if elevating the arms and legs fails to reduce swelling.
Manual lymphatic drainage significantly helps with this problem. When combined with compression bandaging, lymphatic massage has been shown to reduce swelling by 60% in the arms and nearly 70% in the legs, both immediately and after nine months.
An additional study confirms that lymphatic massage and bandaging reduces limb circumference and fluid volume after only one or two treatments. The study also suggests that the fluid buildup is the direct cause of the swelling.
Massage for breast cancer
Surgery for the removal of breast cancer routinely involves the removal of lymph nodes in the pectoral region. The absence of these lymph nodes can cause edema and swelling that is severe enough to compromise arm function.
Fortunately, several studies demonstrate that arm function can be restored by lymphatic massage. Among women who have had this surgery, the massage technique reduces arm volume, improves quality of life, improves breathing and respiration, reduces the sensations of pain and heaviness, and reduces sleep disturbance.[4,5,6,7]
Lymphatic massage benefits everyone
Lymphatic drainage also reduces blood pressure even in healthy individuals. In one study, researchers found that lymphatic drainage decreases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the brain responsible for maintaining high blood pressure and a fast heart rate.
Another study shows that drainage increases parasympathetic activity, the part of the brain that promotes relaxation and low blood pressure. This happens because lymphatic drainage helps to return blood to the heart, allowing it to pump more slowly and to require less energy.
How to perform lymphatic drainage at home
Lymphatic vessels and nodes run just below the skin throughout the arms and legs. Their purpose is to filter extracellular fluid and return it to the bloodstream. Therefore, it is important to begin the massage at your fingers or toes and work your way back towards the center of your body.
Only a slight amount of pressure is necessary because the lymphatic vessels are small and near the skin. Maintain a consistent pressure around the entire circumference of the limb until you reach your chest or abdomen, and for added drainage, elevate the limb above the level of your heart during the massage. Practice the massage twice daily for five to ten minutes.
In the studies mentioned, a compression wrapping was applied to the arms and legs for 23 hours after completion of the massage. This enhances the effect by helping to prevent fluid from reentering the extracellular space. A simple bandage wrap can accomplish this, and a more realistic alternative to the procedure used in the studies may be to wear them overnight or while at home.
There are also many massage therapists and naturopathic doctors who are professionally certified in lymphatic drainage.
Share your experience
Have you been to a massage therapist for lymphatic drainage? Do you have any massage or exercise techniques that work for you? Share your experience in the comments section below.
 Andrea Branas. Good Shepherd Penn Partners.
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 Eur J Cancer Care (Engl). 2002 Dec;11(4):254-61.
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 Int J Neurosci. 2009;119(8):1105-17.
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Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated.