If you’d told people five years ago that their Instagram feeds were suddenly going to be overrun with before and after photos of lymphatic drainage transformations, they would have probably politely nodded their heads, mumbled something non-committal about Gwyneth, and gone back to meticulously organizing their millennial pink shelfies and brunch flat lays. And yet, lo and behold, it’s 2021 and lymphatic drainage massage is suddenly everywhere.
Suddenly, of course, is a bit misleading — as with pretty much every effective alternative wellness practice, lymphatic drainage is by no means a new concept. It’s an age-old practice that just so happens to be gaining a lot of attention thanks to celebrities, models, and influencers gushing about their de-puffing and body contouring experiences with manual lymphatic drainage. But what even is it?
Before getting into the massage part, you first need to know about all things lymph. Your lymphatic system is actually a part of your immune system and is a large network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together synergistically to do everything from transport and remove cellular waste to maintain fluid levels in your body. When your lymphatic system is sluggish, it affects not only your health, but also your skin. You can look dull, congested, and puffy all over if you aren’t properly caring for your lymphatic system.
That’s where lymphatic drainage comes in. It’s a technique that involves manually massaging your body in a precise way, either with your hands or with the aid of a tool, to “stimulate and encourage the accumulated fluid [aka.lymph] between the cells to return to the vessels and move towards the bloodstream,” explains Camila Perez, an esthetician, massage therapist, and Clarins ambassador. “After cell metabolism, some debris is absorbed by the bloodstream through small capillaries while excessive fluid and larger molecules are drained by the lymphatic system. This manual technique ultimately will increase the lymph flow and the process of filtration through lymph nodes.”
In simpler terms, it gets that lymph fluid flowing faster, helping to decrease puffiness, and makes sure toxins are efficiently being expelled. Your body should technically be doing this on its own through regular muscle contractions — however, things can get backed up and need a manual boost to remove that excess lymph fluid.
The History Of Lymphatic Drainage Massage
Of course, as lymphatic drainage has grown in mainstream popularity, both its origins and the actual practice have become convoluted. One of the biggest misconceptions, notes Sandra Lanshin Chiu, a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, and founder of Lanshin Healing Studio, is that manual lymphatic drainage is a Traditional Chinese Medicine technique. While some of the concepts may be similar, Chiu notes that traditional Chinese medicine practices like gua sha, cupping, moxibustion, and tui na (medical massage) “focus on improving circulation of blood, qi (energy), fluids, and strengthening the organ systems via energy channels throughout the body,” she says. “While Traditional Chinese Medicine modalities often benefit and improve lymphatic circulation, they do so by improving the circulatory flow of multiple systems.” So, while lymphatic drainage massage has some relation to TCM techniques, Chinese medicine practitioners do not consider it to be one.
Lymphatic drainage, as it’s most commonly known, is actually attributed to the Danish duo physical therapist Dr. Emil Vodder and naturopath Estrid Vodder. While in Paris in the 1930s, the husband and wife studied the lymphatic system and discovered a drainage massage technique that consisted of using light pressure and pumping, circling movements. Et voilà — manual lymphatic drainage massage was born.
That said, the lymphatic system is extremely important in Ayurvedic practices, and dry brushing and the detox massage Abhyanga have been a part of the holistic healing system for thousands of years. The difference between the Vodders’ medical drainage massage and Abhyanga is that Abhyanga puts a greater focus on the type of oils and herbs being used — customizing them to the individual and their dosha (body energy) — and focuses on different energy points of the body. Whereas with the Vodders’ manual lymph drainage, the traditional iteration does not use oils and focuses instead on gliding, cupping, stretching, and compressing different areas of the body in an effort to reduce inflammation and fluid retention.
Why Is Lymphatic Drainage Worthwhile?
Now that that’s been cleared up, let’s talk about why you should care about lymphatic drainage. While it was originally billed as a medical treatment and is still used by therapists to prevent swelling and bruising after injury or surgery, it also has some immediate aesthetic benefits.
According to Dr. Ervina Wu, a registered Traditional Chinese Medicine dermatologist and co-founder of Yina, treatments that promote lymphatic drainage can result in “less sluggishness, more vitality, better energy, clear eyes, clear skin, and less water retention.” One thing it won’t do, however, is lead to weight loss, so be wary of any practitioner that tries to pass it off as a way to shed pounds. “While lymphatic drainage massage helps to reduce water retention and may cause some numbers on scales to lower a little,” says Dr. Wu, “true weight loss comes from a sensible diet, regular exercise, and lifestyle adjustments.” There have been some murmurings about its positive effects on cellulite due to it reducing the amount of fluid pressing against the fibrous bands beneath the skin; however, that’s all anecdotal evidence (and the effects are temporary).
The majority of lymphatic treatments you see listed on spa menus today aren’t necessarily true medical manual lymph drainage à la the Vodder method, but rather some sort of amalgamation of Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and manual lymphatic drainage massage. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — you’re getting a lot of fantastic benefits rolled up into one treatment. The only people who truly need to stick to unadulterated medical lymphatic drainage massage are those recovering from serious injuries or surgeries, as there are very specific massage protocols for those whose bodies are in recovery. The general population is not going to be worse for the wear if their estheticians pairs some dry brushing with skin scooping strokes, some wood paddles, and a healthy dose of plant oils.
As Perez explains, these treatments are usually billed as body contouring massages since they have the dual benefit of both stimulating your lymphatic system to decrease puffiness and temporarily sculpting, shaping, and tightening your body. Perez’s signature body contouring massage, for example, is an expert mix of lymphatic drainage, fascia release, and cupping to stimulate lymph flow.
How To DIY Your Lymphatic Drainage Massage
While you’re going to get the most transformative results from a lymphatic drainage type treatment with a pro on a monthly basis, there are benefits to learning how to do it on yourself at home. Perez says you’ll want to have a body oil on hand (she loves Clarins Contour Body Treatment Oil because it contains naturally detoxifying and firming oils of geranium, sweet marjoram, and lemon), as well as either a dry brush or wooden paddles.
The goal is to move your lymph fluid towards your heart and lymph nodes, which are predominantly located in your groin, armpits, back of the knees, and below the ears. “When performing this treatment at home, a great way to start is by gently massaging the neck and collarbone since that is the location of an important chain of lymph nodes,” notes Perez. If you choose to dry brush, do that first on — wait for it — dry skin before you shower. Always move your brush in upwards strokes towards the direction of your heart, as you are encouraging the lymph to drain towards it and properly flush out those toxins and excess fluid. The exception to this rule is your stomach and torso — in this area you want to move your brush downwards towards your pubic bone and nodes located in your groin area.
Jump in the shower and rinse off and, while your skin is still damp, apply your body oil. Perez says to start by gently pressing and stimulating the nodes in your neck, collarbone, armpit, and groin before using your hands or your wooden paddle to gently but firmly massage the skin in an upward movement towards the heart. Again, when you get to the torso, switch directions and work downwards towards the groin node. Remember that this is not supposed to be a deep tissue muscle massage — you are manipulating the skin at a surface level. “A body contouring massage is not supposed to be painful or cause bruising because we never want to trigger the body to have an inflammatory response,” notes Perez.
If you want to add gua sha into the mix you certainly can, although Chiu says to keep in mind its benefits are not of the lymphatic variety but rather the circulation-boosting kind. “Many confuse the slow and light stroking of facial gua sha as lymphatic drainage, but the fundamental concept and techniques are quite different,” she says. “While gua sha can result in de-puffing, it’s intended to increase circulation and release the tension (or blockages) in the tissues. Manual lymphatic drainage focuses on lymph using super-light touch techniques because lymph responds to very light pressure. Gua sha uses a stroking motion that’s heavier in pressure in order to create friction with the tissue, improving movement of blood, qi, and fluids.”
The great thing about at-home lymphatic drainage treatments is that you can do them multiple times a week or whenever you feel bloated. Just make sure you are checking in with a doctor first before undertaking manual lymphatic drainage, either at home or with a professional. “Anyone with a medical condition that could cause blood clotting should not do lymphatic drainage massage, gua sha, or any other manual therapy without first checking with their physician or healthcare provider,” cautions Chiu. “Risks include a pulmonary embolism, which is a life threatening condition.” Perez notes that those with heart, kidney, or cardiovascular conditions should also check with a doctor first, and those with acute infections or inflammations should steer clear as lymphatic drainage has the potential to exacerbate those issues.
While you may not have given a lot of thought to your lymphatic system in the past, this unsung hero of total body care definitely deserves more of your undivided attention in your beauty and wellness routine. As Perez notes, “Health and beauty go hand in hand, so having better lymph and blood circulation will ensure your skin will be more nourished, hydrated, and oxygenated.”
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