Lymphatic drainage massage, also known as manual lymphatic drainage, relieves swelling that happens when medical treatment or illness blocks your lymphatic system. Lymphatic drainage massage involves gently manipulating specific areas of your body to help lymph move to an area with working lymph vessels.
Lymphatic drainage massage, also known as manual lymphatic drainage, is a gentle form of massage used to relieve painful swelling in your arms and legs caused by lymphedema. Lymphedema often affects people recovering from breast cancer surgery.
Lymphedema happens when your tissues retain fluid left behind after your cardiovascular system sends blood to your tissues and organs.
The remaining fluid is called lymph. Normally, your lymphatic system collects your lymph and returns it to your heart via a network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. When something disrupts your lymphatic system’s process, lymph collects in your arms and legs, making them swell.
A massage therapist uses lymphatic drainage massage techniques to move lymph from your tissues to your lymph nodes, which eases the swelling in your tissues.
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Healthcare providers are still studying whether lymphatic drainage massages make a difference. Some studies show people age 60 and below benefitted by having lymphatic drainage massages.
A lymphatic drainage massage is a two-step process:
Some people benefit from a mechanical process. In this process, you put a sleeve on the swollen arm or leg. The sleeve is attached to a pneumatic pump that pulsates and helps your lymph to drain from your tissues to your lymph nodes.
Lymphatic drainage massages are often used to relieve lymphedema following breast cancer surgery. Other conditions that benefit from lymphatic drainage massages are:
Generally speaking, lymphatic drainage massage is a safe treatment to relieve lymphedema. There are some conditions and circumstances where lymphatic drainage massage isn’t recommended:
Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned your physical health might be affected by lymphatic drainage massage.
You might not see immediate results from lymphatic drainage massages. If you have several sessions without result, ask your healthcare provider about alternative treatments.
Talk to your healthcare provider about learning lymphatic draining massage techniques. They’ll have information to help you decide if you would benefit from doing lymphatic draining massage yourself or by working with a trained massage therapist.
Few people have negative reactions to lymphatic drainage massage. Some people, however, complain of headaches, nausea and fatigue. When that happens, you should ask your healthcare provider about managing your side effects.
You should call your provider if your lymphedema appears to be getting worse.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Lymphedema causes swelling and raises your risk of infection. It’s an unfortunate and uncomfortable outcome of some treatments for cancer and other illnesses. Lymphatic drainage massage is one way to relieve your lymphedema symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider if a lymphatic drainage massage might be helpful.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/02/2021.
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