Usually when you hear the word “massage,” thoughts of relaxation, soothing music, and limbs covered in lavender-smelling lotion come to mind. That’s not always the case, however. Lymphatic Massage, or more medically known as Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) isn’t the typical spa day experience.
Your lymph nodes are much more intricate than that sore neck muscle you’ve been nursing. MLD is a very gentle massage that uses a light amount of pressure, combined with rhythmic hand movements to stimulate lymph movement and increase the flow of the body’s lymphatic system. It is indeed soothing, and about as soft as massages come, although its purposes are more complex than that of your typical massage. Goals like accelerating the natural drainage of lymph to carry fluid towards the heart and away from the tissues. Objectives like removing waste from agitated areas to shrink inflammation. It is NOT to powerfully press and knead that knot out of your back.
The controversial practice was created in the 1930’s by Emil and Estrid Vodder, a pair of married Danish doctors who noticed their patient’s lymph nodes were routinely swollen. Contentious back then because the medical world didn’t yet understand the lymphatic system—and just the mere thought of tampering with lymph nodes was considered taboo—the Vodder’s dug deep into their lymph vessel studies and found that pumping, circular movements with a light pressure created relief for their patients. Their teachings are now taught all over the world, and MLD is the most prescribed physical therapy technique in Germany.
In America the practice is still somewhat debatable. Professionals’ opinions are divided on whether it’s a practice that can benefit everyone or whether its effects are strictly beneficial for those with conditions like Lymphedema, which is a serious condition caused by cancer treatments, radiation therapy, and surgery.
MassageTherapy.com claims the massages can speed up recovery time after surgery by boosting the redevelopment process of cells and tissues. Livestrong.com states that it can help with breastfeeding complications like plugged ducts and engorgement. Still others assert it works to reverse cellulite, soothes swollen feet, lessens PMS, and clears acne. Reading about it online it can sometimes sound like a sort of miracle cure as the popular fashion blogger, Lauryn Evarts, from The Skinny Confidential describes of her experience after she got one in Hong Kong.
But is it? Dr. Andrew Weil, Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, believes it is a valuable technique for treating those with Lymphedema, but is firm in his opposition that it is not for individuals without those health problems due to the fact that he has seen no concrete evidence supporting the claims. In a 2009 study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, it was found that the art works on athletes in their rehabilitation process but is based upon hypotheses, and more evidence is needed to draw any real tangible conclusion. Basically there is not enough research that will truly tell if it is beneficial or not for the everyday person.
If it works for you, good for you, but note that your lymph system and nodes are not something you want to trust just anyone with. If you do choose this type of massage be sure to go to a certified therapist specifically trained for MLD, (the National Lymphedema Network is a good option).
Until then, there’s always that Groupon massage deal that’s too good to pass up. That, or just pay someone to squeeze the heck out of that darn kink in your neck, because no matter how much you press and knead and “gently massage in a circular motion”, that thing is here to stay.
Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media via @lindizzaster.