Lymphatic drainage massage, or manual lymph drainage, has recently been gaining popularity outside its role as the main treatment for lymphedema, a serious condition that can result from damage to the lymph system following things such as radiation or surgery. While some insurances cover this therapy for reasons such as lymphedema, in the absence of a coverable diagnosis treatment may cost upward of $100 per session. It is touted to help with water retention, bloating, weight loss, and boosting the immune system and I’ll discuss here if these claims are true and worth your time and money.
To begin, it’s necessary to understand the function of the lymphatic system. It is immensely important to our health but its role is often overlooked in general medical care except in the face of acute illness, cancers, and other direct involvement of the system. It works closely with our circulatory system, collecting fluid from blood and tissue and recirculating the beneficial components while helping to eliminate the harmful components (e.g. bacteria, cellular debris, cancer cells, toxicants) and thus is essential to fluid distribution in the body as well as immune function. The lymphatic system also has a role in fat absorption in the digestive system. It is structured with its own vessel system that traipses the entire body and contains lymph, the fluid within the system, lymph nodes, the major sites of filtration and immune-cell production, and lacteals, sites of fat absorption.
The lymphatic system relies partly on tissue movement and muscular contraction for lymph to circulate the body. General movement tends to do this job quite well but massage can help too since it physically manipulates muscles and tissue. The skill involved in a lymphatic massage over a regular massage, however, is in the practitioner’s understanding of lymph channel location and the direction of lymph flow and is performed with a gentle, quick touch, promoting circulation and filtration of tissue fluids; with today’s modern lifestyle of sedentariness, this extra support can be helpful. Subtle benefits may be seen in better fluid distribution throughout the body appearing as less swelling or puffiness and this may result in increased energy, decreased aches and pains, and better immune surveillance as more fluid is passed through the lymph system and exposed to disease-fighting cells. Individuals who may have a history of surgery, circulatory disease, obesity, chronic illness or recurrent infection, and poor nutrition or lifestyle (to name a few) would benefit even more greatly from this therapy as these are all aspects that can hinder lymph movement and lymphatic system function.
Apart from more conspicuous cases of lymphatic issues such as lymphedema or lymphoma, the more subtle impediments to lymphatic function by the health states listed above are often only addressed by holistically minded practitioners. Just as with the vessels of the circulatory system, lymphatic vessels can also be damaged by diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors. As one of the biggest eliminators of toxic waste in our bodies, this becomes an issue when the system is less able to eliminate noxious components from the body and they continue to circulate and become stored in our tissues instead, harming our cells. While there is still so much for science to uncover in regard to this, with the understanding we have at this time and as often seen clinically by practitioners who take lymphatic health into consideration, it appears that the less healthy we are the less the lymphatic system is able to do its job, contributing to health problems. This is likely due to both a weakening of immune activity and harm to lymph tissue itself as outlined in a growing number of studies 1, 2
Given the information provided I hope it is evident that, yes, there is validity to many of the health claims regarding lymphatic massage. And as far as a weight loss claim, this is likely due to better fluid distribution and decreased water retention, but also the lymphatic system’s role in fat-absorption that we do not fully understand. Studies have shown there is a correlation in fat microcirculation (for which the lymph system contributes) and obesity 3, but we do not yet have the full picture. As with all things health related, addressing lymph system health is only part of the wellness picture; diet, exercise, and stress reduction still remain top-line health interventions. As a low-risk intervention, however, support in the way of lymphatic drainage massage is a worthwhile consideration if it fits within your budget, especially for those with chronic health issues, although similar results can also be achieved through regular movement and things like hot and cold therapy and self-massage. Additionally, a naturopathic doctor or other holistic/functional provider can also offer lymphatic support in the way of herbs and nutrients known to contribute to lymph movement and health if he or she feels it would benefit you.
1 Lynch PM, Delano FA, Schmid-schönbein GW. The primary valves in the initial lymphatics during inflammation. Lymphat Res Biol. 2007;5(1):3-10.
2 Andersen CJ, Murphy KE, Fernandez ML. Impact of Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome on Immunity. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(1):66-75.
3 Rutkowski JM, Davis
KE, Scherer PE. Mechanisms of obesity and related pathologies: the macro- and
microcirculation of adipose tissue. FEBS J. 2009;276(20):5738-46.