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Should I Try It: Is Lymphatic Drainage Massage All Hype?

If you’re anything like me, you probably spend quite a bit of time (and money) trying to stay up to date on all the latest health, wellness, and beauty trends. From the CBD craze that is everywhere right now to the chlorophyll water trend that went viral on TikTok earlier this year, I’ve tried it all. A few were big hits – CBD now holds a permanent place in my wellness routine – while others were big misses.

Recently my interest has been peaked by the chatter around lymphatic drainage massage. This treatment is said to provide a host of benefits related to circulation, body fluid balance, and immune function. This all sounds good, but before diving in (I learned my lesson with the chlorophyll water craze), I reached out to a few experts to get a better understanding of the process and to answer some fundamental questions, like is the lymphatic system even a thing?

First Things First: What Is the Lymphatic System?

After several teen years spent in biology class, most of us know that the human body is made up of many different systems. (Think: nervous, immune, digestive.) But if you’re like me, the lymphatic system didn’t star on your high school tests. This lesser known system is made up of a collection of tissues, vessels, nodes, and ducts that sit under the skin and that play an important role in your body’s circulatory and immune functions.

Most systems of the body have their own means to move stuff around. The heart, for instance, is the circulatory system’s pump that keeps blood flowing. The lymphatic system is unique in that it doesn’t have its own independent motor. Given that its purpose is to move a colorless fluid called lymph back into your main circulatory system (aka the bloodstream), thereby removing waste and toxins from your tissues, among other services, this can pose a problem for your overall wellness.

The lymphatic system isn’t totally helpless—it moves lymph fluid around largely through the contraction of muscles which is yet another reason why exercise is so import. But because it requires manual motion, sometimes the fluid can build up, a situation which lymphatic drainage massage can help fix.  

How Does Lymphatic Drainage Massage Work?

According to Beret Loncar, a certified lymphatic therapist in New York, lymphatic massage works by stimulating the body to do what it already does, but better.

“Lymphatic massage puts you in a state of 'rest and digest.’ The therapist stimulates the lymphatic nodes and collecting vessels through manual pumping (rhythmic strokes) and soft strokes,” she says. “The therapist tries to direct the fluid back towards the main duct system that is at the central part of the body, or, in the case of a compromised lymphatic system, towards an area that is more functional.”

In a nutshell, a lymphatic massage helps get your fluid moving. Whereas a deep tissue massage targets the tissue deep inside your muscles, the rhythmic movements in a lymphatic drainage massage mirror your lymphatic system to stimulate flow. Treatment can either take the form of a whole-body massage or a lymphatic drainage facial, which focuses on your face.

What Are the Benefits?

Loncar said benefits usually include less swelling and puffiness in areas of fluid build-up, an overall feeling of being more rested, as well as pain management.

Some may experience overall skin improvements thanks to the increase in circulation and decrease in inflammation and puffiness that comes with treatment. This can also have a positive effect on some skin conditions, like acne. But other claims as to the aesthetic effects of lymphatic drainage massage, particularly its ability to remove cellulite, are so far all talk. No medical evidence yet exists that confirms any serious beauty benefits as a result of this treatment.

“[Overall, a lymphatic massage] can help to reduce swelling, manage function in the case of compromise, and optimize health,” Loncar said.

Should I Try It?

This treatment may be for you if you are experiencing any sort of edema (or swelling), like if you’re pregnant and have noticed some extra water retention in your legs and ankles or you’ve been feeling super bloated lately; if you’ve had a recent surgery, including any cosmetic procedures or plastic surgery, and want to assist the healing process; or if you simply just want to feel better and do something for your health.

But before diving in, you should sit down with a trained professional to see whether you’d be a good candidate.

“You want to make sure your therapist is certified, especially if you have an underlying condition for which you are seeking treatment,” Loncar said. “Do not go to anyone giving you false claims: toxins are a big false claim, your kidneys/liver will remove any toxins from your body. You do not need a therapist for that.”

If you do decide to try it, you can expect to pay anywhere between $100 to $300, depending on your location and insurance.

Can I Do It at Home?

Let’s say you’re interested in getting a lymphatic drainage massage, but you don’t want to invest the time or money trying out a new procedure right now. Another option is to consider doing an at-home treatment yourself.

One technique Loncar recommends to those new to at-home lymphatic massage is dry brushing the skin. The name says it all — this treatment involves using a body brush with stiff bristles to brush your skin in a circular motion from your ankles up toward your heart. This stimulates the movement of fluid and, as an extra bonus, also exfoliates your skin.

New York dermatologist Hadley King recommends another method to her patients. “Start by pressing on the area right under the collar bone, then press each armpit, then perform upward strokes along each arm from the elbow to the armpit,” she says. “For the lower body start by pressing the inguinal node area in the groin, then press behind the knee, then upward strokes from the foot to the knee and from the knee to the groin.”

You’ll know your at-home method is working if you notice a change in your skin, a reduction in swelling, or feel the need to pee post-treatment. And when one (or all) of those things happen, you can add lymphatic drainage massage to your list of wellness trends that actually work.

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