What the Heck Is Lymphatic Drainage?

One of the latest trends in the weird world of wellness.

 minute read

I have never understood why, but thinking about all of the liquids in my body totally freaks me out. Like, okay – I’m made up of more than half water, akin to one of those squishy stress tubes, or a tomato. Right. I don’t like to think of myself in such close proximity to a jellyfish. But the reality is our bodies are much up of a whole lot of liquids, and those liquids are very purposeful in keeping us alive and healthy.  

Which is how I found myself some odd Tuesday afternoon, totally cringing while lying on my living room floor lifting my elbows over and over again toward the ceiling. And after that, scooping my armpit like a tub of Halo Top. 

I was giving myself a lymphatic drainage massage, and I was picturing the lymph draining from my elbows like a sludgy green stew, thick with bacteria and disease.

But that’s, uh, not quite how it goes. The lymphatic system helps get the nasty gunk out of your body. It does so by carrying lymph – a cocktail of body fluid, including infection-fighting white blood cells – throughout the body. The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels, much like veins and capillaries, with little lymph nodes spread throughout, which help to filter through that lymph cocktail. Your tonsils, spleen, and adenoids are the big players here, and act as large versions of your lymph nodes. In a person with a healthy, active lymphatic system, everyday smooth muscle movements (involuntary muscles such as your intestines and veins) help move lymph along, unlike blood, which is moved throughout the body by your pumping heart.  

Lymphatic drainage massage is like an extra little boost to those smooth muscle movements. Genetics, disease or injury can cause lymph to build up throughout the lymph system and nodes, and can even result in lymphedema, a type of lymphatic dysfunction where the lymph builds up and causes tissue to swell.

Massage helps to target areas in the body where lymph can get a little stuck by pushing it along so it can easily make its way to those lymph nodes and out of the body. For the most part, your body is totally capable of taking care of this process on its own, but hey – a little rub to the armpit never hurt anybody. And as cold and flu season tightens its grip on us all, any help moving those infectious little freaks through and out the body is worth trying out.  

When performing a lymphatic drainage massage on yourself, there are three areas to target, and they should be cleared in a particular order. That order is: supraclavicular area, axillary area, and the inner elbow.

  1. Begin by lying on the floor, or a flat surface. Cross your arms across your chest like a dead body in a coffin, with your fingertips landing on opposite sides, just below your collarbone. Lift your elbows slowly.
  2. Next clear the axillary area by lying with one arm stretched above your head. Use the other hand to scoop your armpit, moving from top to bottom. Not much pressure is required, so be sure to use a gentle touch when doing so.
  3. To clear the final area, the inner elbows, you will lay your arms straight at your side and pull on the skin of your inner elbow with your opposite hand’s fingers. 

#LymphaticDrainageMassage brings up 20.6K posts on Instagram, showing everything from rose quartz face rollers to dry brushing, and videos of open cuts spewing a watery liquid (supposedly lymph). [Editor’s note: ew.] All the typical trendy Instagram wellness shots are on the grid: unbelievable before and after comparisons (in the literal sense), tutorials shot from millennial pink living rooms, and discount codes from doctors who don’t really seem like doctors. This is one of those wellness trends you may want to approach with a little skepticism, unless you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema and have a lymphatic drainage therapist who’s best able to come up with a treatment plan for you.

In the meantime, catch me scooping our armpits on the living room floor – in this strange new world of wellness trends we live in, this wouldn’t even be the weirdest one.

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