Facial massage, lymphatic drainage, and lymphatic massage have enjoyed increasing levels of popularity despite being traditional techniques performed with minimal to no tools. Lymphatic massage is the practice of massaging the skin manually to stimulate the circulation of the immune system, which in turn helps to remove waste and toxins from the body. The technique of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) was initially developed in the 1930’s by Danish scientist Dr. Emil Vodder as a gentle technique to promote the flow of lymphatic fluid. The goal is to use light touch with slow and rhythmic motions to first stimulate the lymph nodes, following the lymphatic pathway to drive excess fluid into the vessels and then to the appropriate lymph nodes for clearance from the body. Dr. Vodder’s theory and technique are still widely regarded as the definitive guides in lymphatic drainage.
the science of lymphatic drainage
The lymphatic system is a remarkable network of organs, lymph nodes, ducts, and vessels that plays an essential role in our immune system. Lymph, or lymphatic fluid, is a whitish liquid that carries toxins in the body to the lymph nodes for filtration. Lymphatic vessels make up a fine network that runs in parallel to our veins and carry lymph from tissues to the lymph nodes.
The lymphatic system helps to rid the body of the lymph-obligatory load, which consists of proteins, long-chain fatty acids, cells and cell debris, and water. This system also helps to remove viruses and bacteria. Once this load has been processed and cleansed, the lymphatic fluid is transported back into the venous system.
Our bodies possess both primary and secondary lymphoid organs. The primary lymphoid organs include the bone marrow and the thymus. Both produce lymphocytes, or white blood cells, which help to mount an immune response to exogenous invaders. The spleen, tonsils, and lymph nodes are considered to be secondary lymphoid organs. Lymphocytes travel to these organs to help defend the body against foreign invaders. Lymph nodes are located in specific regions of the body, such as the axillary nodes (armpits), cervical nodes (neck), and preauricular nodes (in front of the ear). Each nodal region drains a specific part of the body by filtering out the waste carried to it.
the benefits of lymphatic drainage
While there are a number of claims about the benefits of lymphatic massage and drainage, there’s not a tremendous amount of data to support all of them:
- Reduces swelling: Lymphatic massage and drainage have repeatedly been shown in medical settings to reduce both acute and chronic swelling following disease or surgery. It is a standard part of post-procedure care for many plastic surgery procedures of both the face and body.
- Improves radiance of facial skin: data is limited, but regular lymphatic drainage of the face seems to help promote blood flow, providing radiance from increased circulation.
- Reduces skin aging: while this claim may also be debatable, a recent study conducted by Shiseido linked poor lymphatic drainage to sagging skin associated with skin aging.
- Purifies the skin: the data is somewhat lacking here as well, but regular lymphatic massage of the face appears to help reduce acne breakouts.
how to do lymphatic drainage at home
Lymphatic massage can be performed in the morning or the evening. While morning massage helps to reduce swelling that can occur during the night, evening massage can be extremely relaxing and aid in falling asleep more easily.
Begin with clean and dry skin. Use the pads of your fingers to gently stimulate the tissues. Start with the neck, move up to the jawline and chin, then to the mouth, nose, and eyes. Finish at the glabella (the region between the eyebrows) and the forehead. Keep your movements upwards and out from the middle of the face to the lymph nodes in front of the ears and on the neck.
Lymphatic massage should be avoided if you have a history of circulatory problems, congestive heart failure, blood clots, or an active infection. Active acne lesions should also never be massaged given the risk of spreading bacteria on your face.
tools for lymphatic drainage
There are more than a few ways and tools available for lymphatic massage and drainage. Here are a few of the most popular:
- Manual massage: lymphatic massage can easily be performed with your hands alone. Make sure to use gentle pressure only.
- Dry brushing: dry brushing with a firm but soft brush can be used to stimulate lymphatic drainage. Remember to stroke towards the heart.
- Gua sha: while facial gua sha has been promoted as a lymphatic drainage technique and does in fact assist with lymphatic circulation, it is primarily meant to unblock obstructed blood and qi (energy). Regular practitioners report reduced facial swelling, improved skin texture, decreased acne, and more defined facial features.
- Jade rollers: these are gorgeous and feel wonderful on the skin, but make sure you’re using your roller correctly by moving the fluid in the correct direction. Moving the roller back and forth over your skin probably won’t have much benefit.
post-surgical lymphatic drainage
Lymphatic drainage is now a standard part of our post-surgical care regimens for patients undergoing breast reduction, liposuction, and abdominoplasty surgeries. Breast reduction patients typically receive two treatments beginning the day after surgery to help reduce swelling. Liposuction and abdominoplasty patients receive up to six treatments, with the first treatment ideally beginning one week prior to surgery to stimulate the lymphatic system. We’ve found faster resolution of post-operative swelling and superficial irregularities with regular use of lymphatic drainage in our practice. For patients undergoing facelift surgery, lymphatic drainage can also be very helpful in speeding the resolution of swelling and bruising.
- Wittlinger H, Wittlinger D, Wittlinger A, Wittlinger M. Vodder’s Manual Lymphatic Drainage. Stuttgart: Thieme; 2019.