Lymphatic Drainage

Lymphatic Drainage
Lymphatic Drainage

Lymphatic drainage is a therapeutic method that uses massage-like manipulations to stimulate lymph movement. Lymph is the plasma-like fluid that maintains the body’s fluid balance and removes bacteria.

Combined with other techniques of complete decongestive physiotherapy, it is used to treat lymphedema, swelling in the limbs caused by lymph accumulation.


The use of massage and compression techniques to treat swollen arms and legs was pioneered by Alexander Von Winiwarter, a nineteenth-century surgeon from Belgium. These techniques were refined during the 1930s by Danish massage practitioner Emil Vodder into what is now known as manual lymph drainage.

During the 1980s, German physician Michael Foldi combined lymph drainage with other techniques to develop complete decongestive physiotherapy, widely used in the treatment of lymphedema.


Lymphatic drainage is said to beneficially effect the nervous, immune and muscular systems. Its primary purpose is the treatment of lymphedema, a condition that causes unattractive swelling of arms and legs and creates an environment ripe for infection.


Lymphatic drainage is accomplished by gentle, rhythmic massage following the direction of lymph flow. Mild stretching movements are used on the walls of lymph collectors to redirect the flow away from blocked areas into other vessels that drain into the veins.

Lymphatic drainage map
Lymphatic drainage map

This massage action is often combined with other elements of complex decongestive therapy, which include:
  • bandages
  • dietary changes
  • skin and nail care to prevent infection
  • therapeutic exercise
  • special compression sleeves, stockings, and other garments
  • patient-applied lymphatic drainage and bandaging techniques
  • light-beam generators to stimulate lymphatic drainage


Any patient who has undergone cancer surgery and experiences sudden swelling after lymphatic drainage should stop treatment and be examined by a medical doctor.

Treatment should also be stopped if infection of the lymphatic vessels occurs. The U.S. National Lymphedema Network recommends that patients taking anticoagulants for vascular disease be first checked for blood clots using ultrasound or other technology, and followed closely during the treatment.

Congestive heart failure patients who may not be able to tolerate excessive movement of lymph need close monitoring also. If any pain is associated with lymphatic drainage, the treatment should stop until either the source is discovered or the pain goes away.

Side effects

There are concerns that lymphatic drainage and associated techniques could cause cancer to spread in patients with recurrent or metastatic disease.

Research and general acceptance

Lymphatic drainage has enjoyed widespread acceptance in Europe for several decades, and is gaining acceptance within the North American medical establishment.