Lymphatic drainage massage doesn’t sound sexy; the term brings to mind those videos of mud oozing from underground drain pipes. But it seems to be everywhere. Stars like Selena Gomez, Jennifer Aniston and Sean “Diddy” Combs get it done. One popular Los Angeles masseuse who specializes in lymphatic drainage reportedly has a waitlist of over 2,300.

For years, lymphatic drainage massage has been used to treat conditions like lymphedema and post-surgical swelling. Athletes have used it to speed up their recovery process. So how did it become the massage therapy du jour? What does it really do? And why, when I tried it, did the massage therapist repeatedly urge me to “stay near a toilet” for the rest of the day?

What is lymphatic drainage massage?

To understand lymphatic drainage, one must first understand the lymphatic system.

“You can think of the lymphatic system as basically a mass highway throughout your body for fluid balance,” says Dr Brendon Ross, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Chicago. The complex network of organs, vessels and tissues helps send immune cells to where they’re needed, and flushes out toxins that accumulate due to injury or as a byproduct of the metabolic process.

Gentle massage techniques can help move the lymphatic fluid, strengthening the immune system and helping the body heal faster.

The key word in all of this, notes Sierra Velasquez, a certified massage therapist and certified manual lymph drainage therapist, is “gentle”. Velasquez says she has recently seen lymphatic drainage massage used on social media to describe deep tissue massages, which do nothing for the lymphatic system.

“The massage is very gentle,” she says. “The pressure is like the weight of a nickel. It’s an incredibly light touch.”

This is important because many of the lymph vessels are right beneath the skin, she says. “If you’re pressing down on the vessels, that’s actually going to stagnate them,” says Velasquez. The right technique is to lightly brush the lymph vessels – usually towards the lymph nodes, tiny organs that help filter lymphatic fluid. Lymph nodes exist throughout the body, but some of the biggest clusters are in the neck, armpits, groin and knees.

While terms like lymphatic drainage massage, lymphatic massage and manual lymphatic drainage are often used interchangeably online, they don’t necessarily always mean the same thing, Velasquez says. Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a “systematic approach to lymph drainage”, she explains. This can be a standalone treatment, or incorporated into standard massage therapy.

Woman receiving a face massage
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For those looking for a full MLD treatment, she suggests working with a certified manual lymphatic drainage therapist (CMLDT).

“I’ve come across a lot of professionals who think lymphatic just means light pressure,” she says. “There’s a lot more education to it than that.”

What are the benefits of lymphatic drainage massage?

Lymphatic drainage massage has long been used to help with lymphedema, a condition in which the lymphatic system is damaged and fluid accumulates in the body’s soft tissues, typically around one’s arms or legs. Velasquez adds that it is also recognized to effectively treat post-surgical swelling, migraines and fibromyalgia.

Velasquez, who has worked in massage therapy for two decades, says that she saw a dramatic uptick in interest in lymphatic drainage massage after the pandemic began. “Mostly due, I think, to the rise in plastic surgery,” she says. The technique can help people recover more quickly from procedures like breast augmentations and Brazilian butt lifts, she explains.

The technique has also been popular in athletic circles. Ross, who is also a team physician for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, says the technique helps reduce the swelling and inflammation that can occur at the site of an injury, and helps promote “a more rapid and healthier healing response”.

He adds that the massage can also help with the upper respiratory infections that tend to crop up during times of travel.

Ross says that the decongesting effects of lymphatic drainage can kick in after minutes or hours, while a reduction in inflammation caused by injuries could take 24 to 48 hours; the length of time may vary, depending on factors like the person’s health and the condition being treated.

Can lymphatic drainage lead to weight loss?

Lymphatic drainage can be a powerful tool. But Velasquez says there’s a lot of misinformation about it online, especially when it comes to losing weight.

“Some people are getting the impression that it can shrink fat cells, and that’s not what’s happening,” she says. Photos on social media show people looking noticeably smaller after their treatments. Setting aside the strong possibility of careful posing and photo editing magic, Velasquez says that any difference in appearance after a massage is not the result of any change in the body composition, but of the body processing fluids faster and getting rid of excess water via urination.

“A dramatically different feeling or look” after lymphatic drainage massage “would be very rare,” she says.

A person getting a foot massage
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Is there anyone who shouldn’t do lymphatic massage?

Because lymphatic massages are so gentle, Ross and Velasquez say they are suitable for the vast majority of people. Ross advises caution and adjustments in technique if one is working with a more localized infection, like an abscess, to avoid further aggravation.

What does lymphatic massage feel like?

When I went for my first lymphatic massage, the massage therapist who treated me emphasized that this was not a regular massage. “This is not for your muscles,” she said. “It’s much lighter. Superficial.”

I said I understood, and she smiled. “Luckily, we are in a room right near the toilet!”

Despite this ominous warning, I was able to relax and enjoy my massage, which was pleasant. The therapist used long, light strokes to brush my skin towards the lymph nodes at my knees, groin, armpits and neck. The whole process made me feel like a pampered toothpaste tube, and I didn’t once have to race to the restroom.

Afterwards, she mentioned again that I should stay near a toilet for the rest of the day. I walked home feeling nervous. What had I wrought upon my body and possibly my building’s plumbing system?

I posed this question to Ross, who was as polite as one can be when someone asks them if they’re moments away from having a bathroom emergency.

“Because we are working on fluid balance, and because you are washing out, or trying to detoxify the body with these massages, you can have increased urination,” he says. He then assures me: “I haven’t found any significant gastrointestinal distress.”

In the interest of transparency, I peed a regular amount during the day, and overall felt fine.


How much did it cost?
$135 plus tip.

Did it work? I wasn’t injured or congested at the time, so I can’t speak to its healing properties.

Would I do it again? Yes. After years of asking massage therapists to grind me into dust, it turns out I love a light massage!

Did it fix me? No, but I didn’t really need it at the time; I’d be open to trying it again when I have some sort of light injury or strain.

Overall rating: Three out of five trips to the bathroom.