lymphatic drainage massage

If you specialize in lymphatic drainage massage, you can enhance the effectiveness of your sessions by adding aromatherapy.

By using certain essential oils to help address lymphatic stagnancy and lymphedema, you may find clients will experience less swelling in tissues, decreased body bloat, and reduced glandular or joint swelling, followed by decreased pain.


Normal Lymphatic Function

Lymph flow is important to maintaining good health, as the lymphatic system is an integral part of the immune system, bathing the body’s tissues with lymph, a clear liquid, which collects bacteria, viruses, metabolic debris and other harmful substances. Lymph is then channeled to lymph nodes, where the foreign substances are destroyed or rendered non-functional by various white blood cells, or lymphocytes. The spent lymph and debris are then collected by the circulatory system and flushed out of the body via the urinary system.

Lymphedema describes the abnormal accumulation of lymph fluid under the skin—in other words, swelling. Swelling of this sort indicates lymphatic system insufficiency or stagnation, and is usually caused by a blockage that prevents the free flow of lymph.


Effects of Lymph Blockage

When the lymphatic system is blocked, it cannot carry out its pathogen-fighting activity and the fluid becomes stagnant, thus impairing the immune system. In addition to swelling and immune system impairment, stagnant lymph may cause on-site inflammation and infection. Unchecked, this stagnation may cause lymphedema, which can contribute to long-term, serious, painful conditions such as cellulitis.

leg showing edema

Causes of Lymphedema

Lymphedema or lymphatic stagnancy are often seen when the lymphatic nodes or lymphatic vessels are removed or damaged by surgical procedures or radiation therapy, notably after breast cancer treatment. However, lymphedema or lymphatic stagnancy can also be observed after bone breaks, muscle sprains, tendon tears, or any trauma in which the lymphatic vessels or nodes have been damaged. Additionally, inflammatory processes of arthritis can compromise lymphatic vessels or nodes and cause swelling. Lymphedema commonly affects arms and legs, but it can also affect the face, neck, torso, even genitalia.

Lack of sleep and improper diet can also contribute to lymphatic stagnancy. It is during sleep that our immune and lymphatic systems perform the housecleaning tasks of the body. If the body is very sleep-deprived, these processes are hampered and stagnation or swelling may occur. Poor dietary choices, such as eating a wheat product when you know you’re sensitive to wheat, could result in swelling of the hands or even a large area such as the upper or lower torso—or both.

It is estimated that there are 10 million cases of lymphedema or lymphatic diseases in the U.S., with 900,000 of those of occurring in postsurgical breast cancer patients alone, according to the Lymphatic Education and Research Network. Lymphedema can produce mild discomfort to severe pain and disfigurement. Untreated, it can become a long-term, painful, depressing disability.


Essential Oils That Help Reduce Swelling

There are specific essential oils that help reduce swelling in tissue remarkably well due to their lymphatic-stimulation and anti-inflammatory properties, promoting free lymph circulation. The following information is supported by several textbooks on aromatherapy, including The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 2nd edition by Salvatore Battaglia (2012); and The Aromatherapy Practitioner Reference Manual by Sylla Sheppard-Hanger (2000).


Citrus Oils

The citrus family of essential oils is notable for their lymphatic effects. These expressed oils include sweet orange, lemon, mandarin, tangerine and grapefruit and are popularly thought of as cleansing. By stimulating the lymphatic system, stagnancy is relieved; lymph is moved. Additionally, citrus oils are known to have diuretic properties, which can further assist the body in ridding itself of lymphatic waste via the urinary tract.

One caution regarding expressed citrus oils is that they cause photosensitivity when applied to the skin, producing a rash with sunlight exposure that is difficult to get rid of. Skin treated with citrus oils should not be exposed to sunlight within 12 hours of application. With planning, use of citrus oils for lymphatic insufficiency is manageable: An evening massage appointment could be arranged or the essential oil application site can be covered after the session, shielding it from the sun. Other than this, citrus oils are reported to be nontoxic.

Note, however, that there is conflicting source information regarding grapefruit essential oil. It is considered non-photosensitizing by some, and photosensitizing by others. To be on the side of caution, treat it as a photosensitizing agent.

An additional perk to using citrus oils is that they are refreshing and uplifting—who hasn’t felt refreshed by the scent of lemon or orange?

citrus fruit

Geranium Oil

Geranium essential oil is also a lymphatic stimulant and anti-inflammatory agent. There are many cultivated forms, varieties and hybrids of geranium. For this article, I refer to Pelargonium gravelolens, or bourbon geranium.

As with citrus oils, geranium actively provides relief from lymphatic insufficiency and swelling. This floral oil is also a diuretic and thus assists the body in ridding itself of wastes via the urinary system. It is reported to be nontoxic, non-irritating and non-sensitizing.

Geranium has a pleasant, clean floral scent and is often used in aromatherapy to help relieve stress, depression and anxiety. It is also thought to be sedative and uplifting. Another plus is that geranium has been used in skin care for balancing the production of sebum, making it suitable for both dry and oily skin; and it helps protect the integrity of the skin. Supporting the skin structures is important, as lymphatic swelling can damage skin structures.


Choosing Essential Oils for Lymphatic Drainage Massage

So how do you choose which oil to use? Start with client preference—which scents does your client like? Or which combination?

Be sure to dilute oils properly before application. A 2.5 percent dilution in a carrier is acceptable for full-body massage, or you may increase to 5 percent for treating a smaller area.

It is important to use organic oils or oils that are free of pesticides and unadulterated. These oils may be used to increase results during certified lymphedema treatments or during regular, light-pressure massage toward the heart, concentrating on the afflicted area.  

Other factors to consider when creating a blend of oils to address lymphedema, lymphatic stagnancy or lymphatic insufficiency include:

  • health and efficiency of the client’s circulatory and urinary systems
  • toxic load of the client’s liver
  • general health of the client’s immune system
  • health of the client’s integumentary system (hair, skin and nails)

If these systems or organs need support, oils designed to boost their health could also be included in a blend.

Geranium and citrus oils, appropriately diluted, are effective as single oils and can be included easily in a massage session to bring some additional relief to lymphatic woes.


About the Author

Carol M. Quigless is a certified clinical aromatherapist, licensed massage therapist and reiki master-teacher. She has been using essential oils since 2000 and is the sole proprietor of MedEssential Oils. She is an avid aromatherapy educator who provides National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved continuing education workshops to both massage therapists and the public.


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