The other day, I ran into an excellent question. “Why does a lymphatic massage require a soft touch? Wouldn't deep massage work as well?” This is a style of massage about which many people are confused and about which, sadly, some therapists don’t have a good answer to give. The simple fact is that the pressure of the massage has to do with the lymph vessels themselves.
Lymph vessels don’t have a large pump (the heart) that forces the lymph fluid through the vessels, nor do they have any musculature to lend their walls support. In addition to helping maintain fluid balance within the body, the lymphatic system actually acts as a major part of the filtration system for your blood and tissues. Fluid from said blood and tissues is filtered into the lymph vessels, and this lymph fluid is carried to the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes destroy bacteria and assist in cleaning out other waste products, and the cleaned fluid is then circulated back through the lymph vessels into the right lymphatic duct and thoracic duct, which then drain into the right and left subclavian veins, respectively. From there, since it has entered the bloodstream, the lymph fluid can be pumped through the blood stream to rehydrate the blood and the tissues that need it. (Incidentally, this is another reason why drinking the appropriate amount of water per day is important. It’s hard for any of your systems to work properly if you’re dehydrated, but it is especially difficult for your blood and lymph circulatory systems!)
Unlike your arteries and veins, which have some degree of musculature and can hold themselves open fairly well, even when placed under some pressure, lymph vessels simply cannot stay open if almost any amount of pressure is placed upon them. They lack the strength in their vessel walls to do so. Rather, they temporarily collapse and will only re-open once the pressure has been removed. Normally, the natural movements of your muscles encourage the lymph fluid to move through the vessels on its own (and, like veins, these vessels have valves that prevent the fluid from flowing backwards).
You can probably see now why a deep tissue massage, or even a regular Swedish massage, would be less effective at moving lymph around the body. It’s not that it wouldn’t work at all. There would still be some movement of the lymphatic fluid, as the manipulation of the tissues themselves would encourage some lymph flow. But if you are looking for a massage that specifically targets the lymph system, a much lighter touch is needed to keep the lymph vessels under the therapists hands from collapsing. In fact, the pressure of no more than the weight of a dime on the skin can be effectively used in lymphatic drainage massage, since the technique is meant to target the superficial lymphatic capillaries located just below the surface of the skin in the dermis. This way, the massage therapist ensures that the lymph vessels themselves remain open and that the fluid can be gently pushed through the open lymph vessels in the direction of lymph flow, towards the lymph nodes.
Why would anyone want to get a lymphatic drainage massage? Well, lymphatic drainage is useful, primarily, for increasing the flow of lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Since the lymphatic system is so directly tied into the immune system (i.e. the lymph nodes, which house large numbers of white blood cells), it is helpful for boosting immunity and cleansing the fluids that are in the lymph system before they are circulated back into the bloodstream. It can also help drain areas which are edematous and swollen by encouraging the stagnant lymph fluid to begin flowing out of the area once more. And, while the light touch may not be soothing for everyone, it is generally a very relaxing technique and can help relieve stress and promote the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (or the “rest and digest” system, as it is sometimes known). Lymph massage may not be for everyone, but for those individuals looking for the particular benefits listed and who prefer to not receive other more traditional types of massage, such as Swedish, it is an excellent modality to try.