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I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I don’t have any allergies—until the spring rolls around. As soon as pollen populates the air, my eyes turn itchy and my face swells. And while over-the-counter medications and Ayurvedic techniques can help relieve my symptoms, I’m often still left with congestion. However, a few weeks ago, I started practicing lymphatic drainage massages to help relieve my congestion. (Spoiler: It worked.)
In order to understand more about lymphatic drainage massages and why they’re effective, I chatted with Kelly Sturm, a physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist.
What is a lymphatic drainage massage?
Lymphatic drainage massages target your lymphatic system—a system within your body that plays a large role in immune health. This network of vessels acts as a drainage system, removing and filtering out fluid from your tissues. However, if the lymph nodes become damaged or are removed, the fluid becomes backed up—causing swelling, Sturm says. Lymphatic drainage massages—which are practiced by using your hands and gentle movement (similar to gua sha)—can help address this type of blockage by stimulating the movement of that fluid, moving it away from your tissues.
These massages benefit those with lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling due to lymphatic blockage. Sturm says this condition often shows up after cancer surgery, when the lymph nodes are removed. But even if you haven’t had your lymph nodes removed, lymphatic drainage massages can still be beneficial. In one of her YouTube videos, Sturm mentions how lymphatic drainage massages can help decongest your face and relieve irritating pressure. However, it’s important to note the benefits of lymphatic drainage massages for sinus infections and allergies are based on anecdotal findings and not scientific studies, she says.
What’s important to keep in mind about lymphatic drainage massages?
It’s not just about your face. Even if you’re practicing a lymphatic drainage massage for your face, you’ll want to start by stimulating the lower lymphatic system— your deep lymphatic channels. Sturm says the deep lymphatic channels are located in your abdomen. “If that deep, kind of core group of lymph nodes [is] backed up, everything else is going to be backed up too,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re stimulating the trunk or abdominal and chest lymph nodes… to make sure we’re helping the entire system.”
It’s also important to practice the correct sequence, direction, and technique during any massage. “To effectively move lymphatic fluid, you have to move in the direction the lymphatic vessels run to the lymph nodes [if you have them],” she says. Sure, the final destination is your heart—but those pathways are just as important.
How much pressure should you apply during a lymphatic drainage massage?
This isn’t your typical deep tissue massage. Sturm says your superficial lymphatic vessels sit directly under the skin, so it doesn’t take a lot of pressure to stimulate them. She says a good barometer for pressure during a lymphatic drainage massage is when you apply pressure, your skin should stretch just slightly. For this type of massage, a little bit goes a long way.
What are some other ways to support your lymphatic system?
While you can opt to practice a lymphatic drainage massage every day (as long as there’s no infection), there are additional practices you can do to support your lymphatic system. (Especially if you only have a few minutes or seconds to spare.)
Sturm says deep breathing can help stimulate the lymph nodes in the middle of your chest. Due to their location, lymphatic drainage massages won’t impact them, but deep breaths that put some pressure on your core can help stimulate that lymphatic fluid. And it doesn’t have to be long. Sturm recommends between three to five deep breaths.
If you’re feeling a cold coming on, Sturm recommends stimulating your lymph nodes by tracing light circles on them. Just a little bit of light pressure for five to 10 seconds can help stimulate them. While there aren’t any scientific studies on this particular technique, she says many people are seeing the benefit of this practice in connection with their lymphatic system.
How do I do a lymphatic drainage massage for my face or sinuses?
While you can perform a lymphatic drainage massage on a number of different areas of your body, I’ve spent the past few weeks focusing on my face. If you’re also looking to try a lymphatic drainage massage for your face, follow along with Sturm in this video—or read through these key tips.
- Stimulate the lymph nodes in your abdomen and your armpits. You’ll want to start off your lymphatic drainage massage by tapping into those deep lymph nodes. To do this, gently press into your stomach, taking a deep breath in and out. You’ll repeat this four times, shifting your hands around your belly each time. You’ll then want to stimulate the lymph nodes in your armpits, which you can do by gently making large circles in your armpits. To see these two techniques in action (and follow along), check out Sturm’s video below.
- Focus on your clavicle—and your ears. To stimulate the lymph nodes around your clavicle, make large circles on the side (or sides) or your clavicle. Once you’ve done about eight to ten circles (as recommended by Sturm), you can move onto your ears—splitting the fingers of your hand and placing them on either side of your ear and making gentle circles.
- Start to clear the fluid. Once you’ve stimulate the lymph nodes, you can start to clear the fluid. You’ll want to start on the lower part of your face—near your neck—before working your way up. To clear the fluid, you’ll gently massage the area in a downward motion. Check out Sturm’s video below to see how to clear the fluid throughout your face.
Over the course of the past month, I’ve returned to the above video on a regular basis—and definitely have noticed a difference. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but I think my face looks a little less swollen, and I generally feel less congested. And even if you’re not experiencing swelling or seasonal allergies, this gentle massage can help calm you down.
Long after my allergies disappear, I plan to continue practicing this massage technique to wind down for the night—and stay off my phone for 10 minutes.