Lymphatic Massage: A Healing Therapy

By Heather L. Fenity, NCBTM, with Uta Pippig
Nodus lymphaticus (lat.), lymph node: A gland with afferent and efferent lymph vessels and part of the lymphatic system. © Graphic sketched by Uta Pippig/Take The Magic Step® (adapted from the Encyclopedia of Science*)
Nodus lymphaticus <lat.>, lymph node: A gland with afferent and efferent lymph vessels and part of the lymphatic system. © Graphic sketched by Uta Pippig/Take The Magic Step® (adapted from the Encyclopedia of Science*)

Would you like to speed recovery from an injury or surgery? Are you suffering from a minor injury with swelling? Do you feel a cold coming on? Then lymphatic massage might be just the therapy that can help you.

What is lymphatic massage—and is this therapy right for you?

Many people are familiar with “lymph nodes,” as we have learned that swollen lymph nodes in the neck are a sign of our bodies fighting an infection. The number of lymph nodes in the human body varies, but it can be estimated at roughly 600-800. They act as purification stations that filter and concentrate lymph—“an almost colorless fluid(1)” that “passes from intercellular spaces of body tissue into the lymphatic vessels(2)” (also called lymphatics) and contains cells that help fight infection and disease.

The lymphatic system is composed of a network of lymphatic vessels throughout the body, lymph follicles, and lymphatic organs such as lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, bone marrow, and lymph follicles of the spleen. The lymphatic organs are responsible for the production of lymphocytes—the kind of white blood cell that plays a main role in the immune defense system of the body. The lymphatic system is responsible for filtering foreign matter and removing excess fluid, protein and waste products from the tissue, and then transporting it to the blood where it is circulated and eliminated. This process is critical in improving the body’s ability to heal itself, as well as decreasing inflammation, which helps speed recovery. The movement of lymph through the body is maintained by three different muscle type contractions: 1. voluntary muscles (which is one of the many reasons exercise is so good for the body), 2. smooth muscles (controlled by the autonomic nervous system), and 3. intestinal muscles (which help move food through the digestive tract).

Lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes are located throughout the body. © Matthew Cole / Fotolia
Lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes are located throughout the body. © Matthew Cole / Fotolia

While traditional massage increases circulation and affects the lymphatic system in general, lymphatic massage is a treatment that specifically increases the flow of lymph. Manual lymph drainage (MLD) is probably the best known and most widely practiced form of lymphatic massage. It was developed in the 1930’s by a Danish couple, Estrid and Emil Vodder, who worked in Europe with people suffering from chronic colds(3). The Vodder’s noticed that light, specific massage techniques helped to move fluid through the body, and aided in healing.

Since its inception, MLD has been used to speed healing from sprains, strains, and bruises, to reduce edema and swelling after surgery, and to treat muscle spasms from overuse and chronic tension. Following surgeries that affect the lymph system (e.g. hysterectomy, prostectomy, mastectomy, etc.), MLD has been shown to move lymph fluid when an area of the body can no longer perform this function. Contraindications for the use of lymphatic massage include acute inflammation, certain forms of cancers, hemorrhage, and acute phlebitis (inflammation of the veins). If you are experiencing any of these conditions, make sure to check with your physician before exploring lymphatic massage.

I have used MLD frequently in my practice and have found it to have a positive result on reducing edema (medical definition: “Swelling caused by excess fluid in body tissues(4).”). In one case, a client had undergone knee replacement surgery and his swelling was not subsiding, which created a feeling of tightness in the joint and increased his pain. To address this, we finished a session with 15 minutes of MLD, focused on the post-operative knee. By the end of the treatment, both the client and I could see a visible change in the puffiness of the knee joint. When he stood up, he reported that the sense of tightness in the joint was relieved and his pain had diminished.

MLD might benefit people who want to decrease healing time for minor injuries (like strains and sprains) and those who have inflammation in a joint due to surgery. Cancer survivors who may have had some lymph involvement and have developed edema, particularly in the limbs, also might find relief. If you feel a cold coming on, getting MLD can speed up your body’s ability to fight the infection, possibly preventing it from manifesting in full. But despite its many benefits, there are health conditions for which MLD may not be appropriate. If you are already under the care of a Primary Care Physician for a condition and are considering lymphatic massage, check with your doctor first (and always let your therapist know of any conditions or health concerns you might have).

MLD is a specific technique that requires additional training and expertise by your massage therapist. There are several levels of training, ranging from instruction as part of a general massage curriculum to specific certification in differing levels and applications of lymphatic treatment. Take The Magic Step recommends that you work only with a therapist with a certification in MLD. Be sure to ask about their qualifications before receiving this type of treatment. Once you are satisfied with your therapist, get ready to enjoy! You will discover that MLD is a very light, rhythmic therapy that stimulates healing and allows the autonomic nervous system to relax and unwind. And you need no special preparation or post massage regimen—so just relax and rejuvenate!

For more information on manual lymph drainage, or to find practitioners in your area, check out the North American Vodder Association of Lymphatic Therapy at


(1) Aim at Melanoma: The Lymphatic System., retrieved November 2011.

(2) Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: Lymph., retrieved May 2009.

(3) DeTurk WE & Cahalin LP: Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapy: An Evidence-Based Approach. McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2004;682.

(4) National Institutes of Health: National Cancer Institute: Dictionary of Cancer Terms: Edema., retrieved May 2009.

*The Internet Encyclopedia of Science: Anatomy and Physiology: lymph node: Section through a lymph node showing the arrangement of vessels., retrieved May 2009.

Works Cited:

(a) North American Vodder Association of Lymphatic Therapy Web site:, May 2009.

(b) Mirka Knaster: Discovering the Body’s Wisdom. Bantam Books, New York 1996; 167-169.

Updated August 14, 2017
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Updated November 9, 2011
Posted May 2009