Lymphatic drainage, also called lymphatic massage or manual lymph drainage, is a technique developed in Germany. It is most useful in treating lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid that can occur after lymph nodes are removed during surgery, most often a mastectomy for breast cancer. Up to 25 percent of breast cancer patients whose surgery includes removal of lymph nodes in the area of the armpit eventually develop this uncomfortable condition in the arm. Lymphedema can also develop in the legs or other parts of the body if lymph nodes are removed in the course of other types of surgery – for melanoma, colon, prostate or bladder cancer, for example – or are damaged by radiation treatment, infection or trauma. Symptoms are swelling, pain and, sometimes, infection. Lymphedema can occur immediately after radiation or surgery or weeks, months, and even years later.
If you don’t have lymphedema, you don’t need lymphatic drainage, no matter what glowing claims are made for it. I’ve seen Internet sites that warn of the health consequences of “sluggish lymphatic flow” and promote lymphatic drainage for all manner of supposed benefits ranging from detoxification of the body, regeneration of burned, injured or wrinkled tissue, anti-aging effects, and relief of sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infections, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, constipation, insomnia, memory loss, cellulite, and obesity. Lymphatic drainage is even being promoted as a beauty treatment. This is ridiculous.
Manual lymphatic drainage is not a necessity for general health. Lymph fluid circulates as result of muscular contraction, including the muscles used in breathing that support normal physical activity. You don’t have to worry about drainage as long as your lymphatic tissues or lymph nodes have not been damaged or removed.
If you do have lymphedema, however, the procedure is worthwhile.
Andrew Weil, M.D.