Lymphatic Drainage: What Is It and Why Should You Incorporate It Into Your Treatments?

The key to health and wellness involves balance. It’s important to balance a nutritious diet with regular exercise and to take care of your body so all its systems work in harmony. One of the systems in the body that is most often neglected (but incredibly important) is the lymphatic system. Though originally developed as a medical massage therapy technique, lymphatic drainage is a treatment that is becoming increasingly popular among celebrities, influencers, and massage lovers.

Here’s what you need to know about lymphatic drainage along with some tips for incorporating it into your spa menu or your personal repertoire as a professional esthetician or massage therapist.

Understanding the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network consisting of tissues and organs that help get rid of toxins, wastes, and other unwanted materials in the body. Its primary function is to transport the healing fluid lymph through a system of lymphatic vessels similar to the capillaries and veins in the circulatory system.

Lymph is a clear, colorless fluid that contains the white blood cells that fight off infection. It only flows in one direction – up toward the neck – but can flow back or accumulate in certain areas which results in swelling, or lymphedema. This is particularly common after surgery, cancer treatments, infection, or any condition that damages the body’s lymphatic system.

What is Lymphatic Drainage Massage?

As you go about your daily life, your body is exposed to a wide variety of toxins. Pollution from the air, chemicals from the products you use, and even substances in the food you eat can accumulate in your body, contributing to a variety of health problems. It’s the role of your lymphatic system to get rid of these toxins and boost your immune system by facilitating the flow of lymph.

Your body contains about twice as many lymph vessels as blood vessels. Unlike blood, however, which is pumped by the heart, the lymphatic system has no pump. It relies instead on the pressure from your blood vessels and the movement of your muscles to maintain lymphatic flow. Lymphatic drainage massage can help improve the flow and drainage of lymph around the body.

Lymphatic drainage massage is also known as Manual Lymphatic Drainage or MLD. This practice originated in the 1930s when a Danish husband and wife team, Emil and Estrid Vodder, developed a treatment they called lymphology. This treatment involved a certain sequence of strokes which quickly became the recommended treatment in France for lymphedema related to cancer treatment.

In the 1970s, German professors Michael and Etelka Foeldi opened a clinic to treat patients using MLD and to educate therapists in its use. Today, MLD has been expanded to address a wide variety of health issues related to more than just the lymphatic system.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage Techniques

Though the Vodder method represents the origins of manual lymphatic drainage, a number of techniques have evolved over the years. The Földi, Leduc, and Casley-Smith methods are also common. Each of these techniques is intended to stimulate the lymph nodes and increase their activity to boost the flow of lymphatic fluid, so they are all fairly similar.

Manual lymphatic drainage is composed primarily of four strokes:

  • Stationary Circles – This technique involves continuous spiral strokes, typically applied over the face, neck, and lymph nodes.
  • Scoop Technique – Administered with palms facing up, this stroke involves cupping the hands to resemble a scoop and applying twisting strokes to the skin.
  • Pump Technique – Generally applied with palms facing down, this technique involves making oval strokes with the fingers and thumbs to encourage lymphatic flow.
  • Rotary Technique – With palms facing down, this stroke is applied in circular motions – the stroke can also be applied with the wrists to reduce the stroke pressure.

Because MLD involves the use of specific strokes, it often requires many hours of training and hands-on experience to become skilled and effective in the treatment. Spas and therapists seeking to offer this treatment should complete training in the different approaches along with the conditions for which MLD is recommended as well as the contraindications.

The Benefits for Skin and Body

The idea that toxins accumulate in your body over time can be difficult to visualize, but the effects are easy to identify. Sluggishness, persistent aches and pains, and increased susceptibility to cold and flu are all signs that your lymphatic system isn’t doing its job. Lymphatic drainage can benefit people experiencing a wide range of issues including fatigue, stress, insomnia, digestive issues, skin disorders, and migraines as well as more serious conditions like lymphedema, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.

Here are some of the potential benefits of lymphatic drainage:

  • It improves the flow of lymph and may help your body fight off infection while speeding healing and recovery from illness.
  • It helps reduce water retention, particularly in the extremities like the feet and hands.
  • It may boost your metabolic rate, helping your burn calories more efficiently to boost your weight loss efforts.
  • It can improve skin texture by reducing swelling and puffiness.
  • It may improve the appearance of stretch marks and speed the healing of scar tissue.
  • It can increase blood flow and help the body break down toxins which may help reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Though lymphatic drainage offers many potential benefits, it isn’t right for everyone. Individuals prone to blood clots and those suffering from congestive heart failure, kidney issues, infections, or circulatory problems should not undergo lymphatic drainage. It’s always best to check with a licensed physician before undergoing this treatment.

Tips for Incorporating Lymphatic Drainage into Treatments

As a spa owner, esthetician, or massage therapist, there are a variety of ways to incorporate lymphatic drainage into treatments. Full-body or targeted lymphatic drainage massage is a great option to expand your menu and may help you appeal to a larger target audience. As an esthetician, incorporating lymphatic drainage can help reduce puffiness and under-eye circles. For massage therapists, lymphatic drainage techniques may help clients suffering from fluid retention, stress, or even jet lag.

Here are a few tips for maximizing the benefits of lymphatic massage for your clients:

  • Make sure your client is warm and relaxed before starting the treatment – warmth is an important factor in boosting lymphatic flow. If possible, turn the table warmer on.
  • Start each facial treatment with a short manual lymphatic drainage treatment – in addition to improving circulation, it may help reduce congestion and swelling.
  • When administering full-body lymphatic drainage, start at the feet and work your way up using light pressure with long, gentle, rhythmic strokes – work in the direction of the lymph nodes which are located in the neck, armpits, and groin.
  • Give the client a few minutes to rest at the end of treatment by ending with a hot towel treatment or something similar – lymphatic drainage can be exhausting. Make sure to offer your client water as they leave the treatment room as well.

As a spa owner or professional therapist, it’s your job to understand the client’s needs and to meet them appropriately. Lymphatic drainage is a versatile treatment that can be applied to a wide range of issues in both facial treatments and massage. Take the time to learn more about MLD and to consider adding it to your repertoire of treatments as a full-body service or add-on.

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