Many patients experience painful swelling in their arms and legs when recovering from surgery or dealing with various chronic conditions and diseases. The swelling is caused by what’s known as lymphedema. It happens when excess lymph fluid builds up in bodily tissue after the cardiovascular system sends blood to tissue and organs. The lymphatic system will normally drain this fluid naturally via lymph vessels and nodes, but certain conditions can prevent the lymphatic system from doing its job, causing the tissue to swell.
But there is another way to drain excess lymph fluid. It’s called lymphatic drainage massage, or manual lymphatic drainage. A trained massage therapist will apply light pressure to the body, so this fluid will drain on its own. Lymphedema can complicate patient recovery times after surgery. Patients should consider this option or talk to their doctor about the benefits of lymphatic drainage massage if they are experiencing painful swelling in the arms and legs.
What is Lymphatic Drainage Massage?
The lymphatic system is designed to remove harmful toxins and waste from the body to help fight infection by transporting lymph fluid through a series of narrow passageways, or lymphatics. But several conditions can disrupt the lymphatic system’s ability to drain this fluid.
“We don’t talk enough about lymphedema,” says Raakhee Patel, PT, DPT, CLT, a physical therapist and certified lymphedema specialist. “Stage 3 lymphedema can be devastating.”
That’s when lymphatic drainage massage can be useful. While a regular massage targets the muscles, a lymphatic massage targets swollen areas on the body. The therapist will gently apply pressure to the skin. The small rhythmic movements quickly open and shut the lymphatics to help the fluid drain. The repeated motion also helps the patient relax while decreasing muscle pain and stiffness.
This type of massage is recommended for those experiencing painful swelling after surgery, particularly breast cancer surgery. It is often used to improve patient recovery times for those undergoing cosmetic procedures, such as a facelift, tummy tuck, or liposuction. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic venous insufficiency, or lipedema will likely benefit from lymphatic massage as well. All these conditions affect circulation and can lead to muscle and joint pain.
However, the procedure is not recommended for those with the following risk factors and medical conditions:
- Congestive heart failure
- History of blood clots or stroke
- Current infection
- Liver problems
- Kidney problems
How Does Lymphatic Drainage Massage Work?
The massage features two phases: clearing and reabsorption. The clearing phase involves removing the fluid from the swollen tissue, while reabsorption focuses on sending this fluid back through the lymphatic system through the lymph nodes.
During the clearing phase, the therapist will apply light pressure to the swollen tissue. This clears the area of lymph fluid, so the area can bring in new fluid, which creates a flushing action. Pressure points include the supraclavicular lymph area (located directly under the collarbone), axillary lymph area (located under the arms), and inside of the elbows.
Patel says the massage should focus on all areas of the lymphatic system, not just those that are swollen. “Always massage both sides of your body, not just the side with the lymphedema,” he advises. The clearing process can be repeated up to 10 times a day.
During reabsorption, the therapist will use a sweeping motion to direct the fluid to the drainage system, so the body can expel these toxins properly. Patel says it’s best to start at the affected part of the body farthest from the core of the body and then move inward.
What are the Benefits?
Patients may experience immediate pain relief after getting a lymphatic drainage massage. The procedure relieves pressure, muscle tension, soreness, and fatigue to help patients get back on their feet as quickly as possible. Improved drainage can also help combat infection by removing harmful toxins from the body.
It can also improve the appearance of the skin by clearing unsightly scars and blemishes.
“When there is lymphatic congestion, infection is a much higher risk and you can have healing problems due to the swelling of tissue,” says Richard Brown, MD, a double board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Scottsdale, AZ. “That, in turn, can lead to pressure on incision lines.”
It’s also important for patients to get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated.
Patel says patients with lymphedema should only see a licensed lymphatic massage therapist. “Massage is very good for you, but deep tissue massage can be too heavy for someone with lymphedema, so don’t assume you can just go to a massage therapist,” he added.
If you or one of your patients is undergoing surgery or dealing with painful swelling in the arms and legs, lymphatic drainage massage can provide the relief you’ve been looking for. Find a licensed massage therapist in your area to learn more about this technique.