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Lymphatic Massage Therapy

What is lymphatic massage?

Lymphatic massage, also called lymphatic drainage or manual lymph drainage, is a technique developed in Germany for treatment of lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid that can occur after lymph nodes are removed during surgery, most often a mastectomy for breast cancer. Lymphedema can also be present at birth or develop at puberty or during adulthood. This type, known as primary lymphedema, can affect as many as four limbs and/or other parts of the body. The cause is unknown. Lymphatic massage for conditions other than lymphedema is not medically recommended, although it may be promoted by some therapists.

What conditions is lymphatic massage used for?

Up to 25 percent of breast cancer patients whose surgery includes removal of lymph nodes in the area of the armpit eventually develop lymphedema. The condition can also occur in the legs or other parts of the body if lymph nodes are removed in the course of other types of surgery – for melanoma, colon, prostate or bladder cancer, for example – or are damaged by radiation treatment, infection or trauma. Symptoms include swelling and pain near the site of the removed or damaged lymph nodes. Lymphedema can occur immediately after radiation therapy or surgery, or weeks, months, and even years later.

What should one expect on a visit to a practitioner of lymphatic massage?

A lymphatic massage session for women who develop lymphedema after surgery for breast cancer starts with light massage on the surface of the skin of the neck. The therapist gently rubs, strokes, taps or pushes the skin in directions that follow the structure of the lymphatic system so that accumulated lymph fluid can drain through proper channels. Lymphatic drainage is very gentle, is not painful and doesn’t have a stimulating effect. Each session lasts from 45 to 60 minutes, and therapy usually is performed once a day four or five times a week for two to four weeks. One study showed that the greatest reduction in swelling from lymphedema occurs in the first week of treatment and stabilizes during the second week.

Are there any side effects or conditions where lymphatic massage should be avoided?

The National Lymphedema Network lists four circumstances under which lymphatic massage or drainage should be avoided:

  1. When clients/patients who have developed lymphedema after surgery experience a sudden, marked increase in localized swelling. Under these circumstances, patients are advised to stop treatment and to see their physicians for evaluation as soon as possible.
  2. Clients/Patients with a sudden onset of lymphangitis (an infection) should immediately discontinue treatment until the infection is treated and completely clears up. Clients/Patients who are at increased risk for blood clotting should be tested to rule out deep-venous thrombosis before being treated. During treatment, these patients should be followed closely, and testing should be performed on a regular basis.
  3. Clients/Patients who have congestive heart failure must be monitored closely to avoid moving too much fluid too quickly, which could put a strain on the heart.
  4. When pain is present, treatment should be discontinued until the underlying cause has been determined and the pain subsides.

Lymph fluid circulates as result of muscular contraction, including the muscles used during normal physical activity. As long as long as your lymphatic tissues or lymph nodes have not been damaged or removed, generally speaking, there is no need to worry about lymphatic flow and drainage.