Surgical drains and compression garments are an expected part of the liposuction recovery process, but there’s another element that can also play an important role. We’re talking about lymphatic drainage massages, which some doctors say can be very beneficial in aiding and speeding up recovery following liposuction as well as after several other types of cosmetic surgeries. Here’s what you need to know about post-procedure lymphatic massages, including how they differ from traditional massages, how many treatments you’ll need, and more.
It’s first important to understand what the lymphatic system is. “It’s a network of tissues, vessels, and organs that work together to move a colorless, watery fluid called lymph back into your bloodstream,” explains Mysti Cobb, a massage therapist specializing in lymphatic drainage at BIÂN Chicago, a holistic health and wellness club. “The three main functions of the lymphatic system are tissue drainage, fat transport, and activating a response from the immune system.” In short, that means that lymph fluid can carry everything from white blood cells to various waste products. Eventually, the lymph gets carried to lymph nodes located throughout the body, which then help clear it.
The thing about the lymphatic system is that, unlike the circulatory system, which is pumped by the heart, there’s nothing to move lymph besides gravity. That’s enough most of the time, but if it becomes stagnant or if the lymph is overloaded, manually getting things moving—via massage—can be very helpful. A lymphatic drainage massage is exactly that: a unique and very gentle massage technique that helps to manually promote and expedite the movement of lymph fluid.
How Is a Lymphatic Drainage Massage Different from A Regular Massage?
The lymphatic system is located almost immediately under the skin, so it takes just a small amount of extremely light pressure to get it moving. “Lymphatic massage techniques are very light and relaxing and use a combination of little, gentler strokes, along with a deeper ‘pumping’ action, over the main parts of the lymphatic system—on the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, and upper legs,” explains Cobb. For those who are used to traditional massages, where deeper pressure is utilized to target the muscles, it can actually not feel like a massage at all.
It bears mentioning that traditional and deep tissue massages are an absolute no-go post-liposuction and can actually hinder the recovery process. For this reason, it’s paramount that the massage therapist you see is well-trained in manual lymphatic drainage technique, cautions Dr. Thomas Su, a physician in Tampa, Florida.
“When there’s an ‘injury’ to the body—in this case, liposuction—the body stimulates lymphatic flow to the area. It’s bringing in white blood cells to the tissue and carrying away waste,” explains Dr. Su. “It’s doing what it is supposed to do, but this extra fluid is what causes the swelling that inevitably occurs after liposuction.” Cobb adds that the tissue in the area that’s liposuctioned can also produce excess lymphatic fluid as the body reacts to the trauma of the fat being removed. And while the subsequent swelling is totally normal, it is one of the biggest things patients have to deal with after the fact.
Enter this unique type of massage, which essentially helps the body push through and flush out fluid buildup. “Lymphatic drainage massage speeds up the recovery process by reducing swelling,” says Dr. Bruce Katz, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
However, not all doctors feel the same way. “I’m not an advocate of lymphatic drainage massage. In my opinion, the way liposuction is performed makes far more of an impact than any type of massage or garment you wear after the fact,” says Dr. Thomas Sterry, a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City. He doesn’t recommend lymphatic drainage massages to his patients (though he does point out that about 50% of them do end up having them). “These massages don’t change the outcome of the surgery. They may reduce swelling temporarily, but you’re still going to have swelling as the body continues to heal itself,” he explains, noting that he doesn’t think they drastically impact the recovery process.
All the doctors we spoke with were quick to note that not getting post-op lymphatic drainage massages isn’t detrimental. Dr. Su also takes a more conservative approach, noting that while many doctors do routinely recommend them, he suggests them only as an option for patients whose swelling isn’t resolving naturally after a few weeks. “I’ve seen no problems in patients who haven’t done it as part of the recovery process, but I do see benefits in those who do,” he says. Dr. Katz agrees that it’s not harmful or dangerous to forgo lymphatic massages, though he does think they can speed up the recovery process by a matter of a few weeks.
“Lymphatic drainage massages are going to be the most beneficial if you’ve undergone liposuction in areas where the swelling tends to be the worst. This is typically the spots that are affected by gravity, such as the lower legs, calves, and knees,” explains Dr. Su. Larger areas that are liposuctioned, for example, the abdomen and flanks as compared to the upper arms, also tend to swell more and, as such, can benefit more from lymphatic massages after the fact, he adds.
This depends somewhat on your particular doctor’s recommendations, though the typical recommendation is about four to six massages post-surgery. Dr. Katz suggests biweekly massages for two weeks, starting the week after surgery. Dr. Su recommends biweekly massages for two to three weeks, starting two weeks post-surgery. You’ll also see the effects pretty quickly, definitely after one or two sessions max. “The reduction in discomfort and swelling almost immediately afterward is what makes this type of massage an even more pleasurable experience,” points out Cobb.
As mentioned above, you should always leave lymphatic massage to a trained professional as your body is healing post-surgery. However, once you’re fully recovered, there are some simple exercises you can incorporate into your routine that may help encourage lymph flow, including deep breathing techniques, foam-rolling, and light touch movements.
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