You’ve probably heard about the anxiety-relieving effects of massage or how it can help heal sore muscles , but what about the benefits of the lymphatic drainage massage, a type of body therapy that’s grown in popularity in recent years.
Lymphatic drainage massage or manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) was a technique developed by a physical therapist to help treat lymphedema in cancer patients.
According to Aubre Weber, DO , a physician at Parsley Health who focuses on metabolic and lifestyle medicine, there are some limited studies that suggest women with breast cancer who may experience excessive fluid buildup after surgical lymph node removal may see “significant reductions” in fluid volume when massage is used as a complementary modality to the typical care protocol
But what about benefits for well, anyone else? While there’s really no scientific evidence that it’s beneficial for other populations, according to Weber, anecdotal research suggests lymphatic drainage massage can help stimulate the lymphatic system, which ties directly to things like inflammation and immunity, by encouraging fluid to flush more efficiently. Why would you want your lymphatic system stimulated, anyway? Let’s take a step back.
Your lymphatic system is composed of vessels connected through the lymph nodes and valves that help to return a clear fluid called lymph from the tissues of the body to the main circulatory system. The system itself helps to remove waste and toxins from bodily tissue, and it brings fluid that’s accumulated across various tissues—anything from your arm to your gut—back to the bloodstream for processing, Weber explains. She calls it “a crucial part of the immune system ” because accumulated fluid lets toxins sit in your system.
Weber also describes the fluid itself as “slow and sporadic” because it doesn’t have something strong like the heart to pump it throughout the body. Instead, she says, it relies on skeletal muscle contraction. Massage could be useful to prevent stagnation and keep the fluid circulating properly.
Lymphatic drainage massage uses a small amount of targeted pressure on specific parts of the body. The practitioner uses a rhythmic circular motion to stimulate fluid movement, Weber explains, which theoretically should support the flushing out of these toxins from your tissues into the bloodstream where they can be properly managed.
Advocates for lymphatic drainage massage say that patients will notice improved energy and sleep , weight loss and generally improved hormone health as evidenced through mood, energy level and mental clarity, for example. It may also lead to reduced physical pain in previously sore areas, a reduction in general achiness and elevated mood, especially if you’re someone who struggles with depression. It may also assist in reducing inflammation and aiding recovery by helping to restore healthy tissue after it breaks down.
However, Weber cautions that these alleged advantages don’t have the science to back them up just yet. “These claims are just that, claims. There are very few if any studies documenting all of these supposed benefits,” she says.
That said, there is some promise to MLD.
Treatments that rev up the lymphatic system—like dry brushing and drainage massage—could arguably benefit anyone who cares about their health. However, it could have a particularly positive outsized effect on those who suffer from conditions that involve the buildup of lymph fluid and its inability to move efficiently. People with conditions like chronic inflammation, fibromyalgia, lymphedema , seasonal allergies or certain autoimmune conditions are more likely to benefit from lymphatic drainage massage, because they’re more susceptible to lymphatic buildup due to reduced or inhibited musculoskeletal movement.
While many of these conditions don’t necessarily threaten a person’s livelihood, they can significantly compromise quality of life and function. Therefore, something like massage, in conjunction with other healing treatments, could help optimize your wellbeing.
“The bottom line is that massage is a modality utilized by many in an overall comprehensive and lifestyle-driven health plan for prevention and treatment of those with known medical conditions as well as those looking to increase health and longevity,” she says.
Weber emphasizes that it’s key to receive lymphatic drainage massage from someone specifically trained in this type of treatment. Typically, costs vary, sometimes going up to $250 for a 60-minute session. “If expense is not a limiting factor, [lymphatic drainage massage] can and frequently is suggested as an adjunct to a well-rounded, comprehensive health plan in the right patient.” Continuing with moderate physical activity, resistance training and stretching at home can enhance the positive impact, she says.
“The best practice is for you to have a personalized discussion with your physician to understand the contraindications to it to prevent harm and to provide appropriate expectations in order to best optimize overall outcomes,” Weber says.
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).