All About Lymphatic Drainage Massage


Lymphatic drainage massage is a technique that requires diligent focus and attention to detail, especially while learning this method of massage. For many estheticians the ultra-light pressure required to use is unusual, challenging and often confusing. After all, professional skin therapists globally are taught to fight the effects of gravity while treating the skin and this is drummed into us from day one of our training; that all movements should be upwards and outwards whether cleansing, applying product or massaging the skin.

Then along comes this technique lymphatic drainage massage and suddenly the movements are the complete opposite; downward and outward. For a more comprehensive understanding of why this method is employed we need a deeper understanding of the structure and anatomy of the lymphatic system.

The delicate, tubular lymphatic capillaries are microscopic and only one cell in thickness and easily squashed and flattened under slight pressure. They are located just below the epidermis in the upper papillary layer of the dermis. We often see illustrations of a cross section of the skin in our textbooks which are greatly magnified and without a point of reference to the actual size we fail to really grasp the true depth. While the thickness of the epidermis varies according to body area, health, sex, age, lifestyle and ethnicity if we bear in mind the thickness of the epidermis is as thick as an average piece of paper, we can appreciate the narrowness of this protective structure. Bearing these factors in mind helps us understand why the technique is so feather light in nature.

Lymphatic capillaries are blind ended vessels, meaning they are capped off at the end. If we use a clothing analogy, blood capillaries are like sleeves and open at both ends whereas lymph capillaries are more like socks and only open at one end.

The circulatory system forms a continuous circuit around the body with arteries and veins running alongside each other in relatively close proximity, carrying oxygenated blood away from the heart and deoxygenated blood back towards the heart respectively. The blood is in constant motion propelled by our perpetual beating, pumping action of the heart. When a massage technique to stimulate blood flow, such as Swedish/European is used, with its back and forth movements we know the blood is moving in both directions.

The lymphatic vessels only carry lymph in a one-way direction, remember they are closed off at one end and therefore the fluid can only be transported in one direction. Potentially, we could cause a “back up effect” of lymph collecting on the tissues if we don’t move it along in the correct direction.

Without the central pump of the blood circulation, the heart, the motion of lymph is reliant on internal pressure from muscular contraction (body movement) and deep abdominal breathing. It’s not uncommon for fluid/lymph to gather in the feet and ankles on long haul flights where movement is limited. Movement of lymph is not simply reliant on physical pressure; the chemical composition also plays a major role in the movement of body fluids but for the understanding of massaging to influence the lymphatic flow this point is extremely relevant.

We emulate the natural flow of lymph with our one-way, downward pumping like technique.

Lymphatic drainage massage when performed manually by hand with light superficial pressure is helping to specifically push the lymph into the lymphatic capillaries and there is no stimulation of the blood circulation. This makes it an ideal method of massage for skins that are either inflamed, toxic or both. European massage as previously mentioned is stimulating to the blood circulation. As the blood and lymph systems are intricately linked when giving a general type of massage the lymph is stimulated by default. Remember, specific lymphatic drainage massage does not stimulate blood flow and will not increase redness or generate heat within the skin.

This type of massage may be performed at any stage of a facial treatment, however, if it is given to help reduce redness in the skin the more stimulating steps of a treatment such as exfoliation of extractions it would be better to carry these out first. While no massage medium is necessary when using the technique, it may be preferable to apply either a water-based serum that will absorb rapidly into the skin or a very small application of an oil-based serum.

Manual Lymphatic Drainage or MLD as it is known is a technique developed and pioneered by Dr. Emil Vodder. He coined the term MLD and technically you can only say you perform Manual Lymphatic Drainage if you have been trained and certified by a Vodder Institute instructor. All lymphatic drainage massage techniques are a variation of this original technique.