Incorporating Lymphatic Drainage in Facelift Massage

By Rita Woods, LMT
May 29, 2009

Incorporating Lymphatic Drainage in Facelift Massage

By Rita Woods, LMT
May 29, 2009

More and more therapists are performing facial massage as a stand alone session such as a facelift massage. Women in their 60s, the typical age group treated in my practice, present with specific issues that should be taken into consideration. First, if they do not receive regular massage and do not have an active lifestyle, they may have sluggish circulatory/lymphatic systems. Second, they may have health and medication issues that impact how, and if, you can proceed with the session. In this column, I'll discuss what you need to know and how to approach the facial lymphatic system in a basic and uncomplicated session.

Areas of Caution

First, some words of caution. If your client suffers from an active infection such as sinusitis, strep throat, tooth abscess or any skin infection, do not proceed. Active head/face infection is your number one contraindication for this work. If, however, they have been taking antibiotics for at least three days, it is generally safe to proceed. Next, if your client has facial swelling of unknown origin, do not proceed. Remember this is for a typical session with a healthy client and no extenuating circumstances. While it is possible to use this work to address blunt force trauma and post-facial surgery, that requires advanced training. Standard massage contraindications also apply even when working on the face alone.

Facial Lymphatic System

Now, onto the treatment itself. You remember from your massage school curriculum that massage increases circulation; it also increases lymphatic flow. That is, massage also increases the release and flow of lymphatic waste. As with any "waste disposal," some form of clearing should be done before adding more waste to the system. (For example, if there is mud stuck in the end of a garden hose, the mud must be cleared out before the water can flow effectively. The same holds true in the body's waste removal systems.)

Unlike the blood circulation in the face which drains in a variety of directions before ending up back at the heart, the facial lymphatic system follows a very exacting drainage path. The right side of the face flows to the right and the left side to the left - with both sides ultimately flowing into submandibular lymph nodes. While there are other locations housing lymph nodes involved with head/face "cleaning," such as under the occiput, the main ones for facelift style work are the submandibular ones. Lymph nodes vary in size from small - about the size of a pin head - to large, about the size of an olive. The ones under the mandible are about the size of a pea.

During a regular full body massage, muscles are warmed and circulation increases. When performing a stand alone face session, muscles must also be "prewarmed" in order to gain the necessary effects. As importantly, submandibular lymph nodes must be stimulated (rubbed) in order to open and enhance circulatory and lymphatic flow. Failure to do so could result in edema and puffiness especially under the eyes, an area prone to sluggish lymph flow.

If your client suffers from bags under the eyes or obvious fluid retention in the face, you may choose to focus more time on lymphatic work until some of the fluid and puffiness has decreased, possibly in one or two sessions. Although it is not possible or practical to teach a facial lymphatic protocol in this format, we can follow some basic steps that will surely help your client. Do not mix muscle work and lymphatic work. The lymph vessels are just under the surface of the skin on the face and are easily flattened by pressing too deeply. While they recover quickly, they need time to do so. A muscle technique to break up adhesions should not immediately be followed by a lymphatic stroke.

Two Key Areas

Two key areas to focus your attention are the submandibular nodes and the terminus. The terminus is where the lymph vessels dump into the circulatory system just before entering the heart. Unlike the rest of the body, the lymph vessels of the face have a straight shot down the neck and into the heart. You want to stimulate this area to prepare it to receive more lymph. This stimulation, while gentle, is more aggressive than work on the actual vessels. The same is true of the submandibular nodes. You will exert a steady and firm pressure, almost in a milking/pumping action, to these nodes. Done correctly, your client will be able to breathe, swallow and speak while you affect the nodes. The tips of your fingers apply pumping pressure on the underside of mandible and your fingers must remain in constant contact with the inner edge of the jaw line. The nodes are tucked up under the inside edge and in some cases can be palpated. Keeping your fingers on the bone will also ensure that you are not encroaching on arteries or veins in the neck.

Steps of Treatment

A typical session would be as follows: 1)Warm the facial muscles using any gentle, non-invasive technique; 2)Gently stimulate the lymphatic terminus which is found below the clavicles and on either side of the manubrium; 3) Stimulate the submandibular lymph nodes by using digital pressure up underneath the mandible bone; then 4) Proceed with your facelift session protocol. Upon completion of the facelift protocol, allow 5-10 minutes for stimulating the lymph flow through the lymphatic vessels. These vessels respond well to light stroking that is almost featherlike. Starting with the region closest to the nodes, apply a light stretch to the skin then follow the movement with a featherlike trailing toward the nodes. Your stroke will look like a 7 or an L. Work your strokes up to the middle of the face with the featherlike trailing toward the nodes. You may encounter some drag if there is lubricant on the face. If so, you can use a cotton ball for the trailing stroke. Cotton balls work well on and around the eyelids.

The combination of the proper facial and/or facelift massage and lymphatic drainage of the face can multiply the effects of facial work. Some of my happiest clients are those who finally get rid of the bag-gage.

I want to thank Charlotte Versagi, lymphatic massage instructor extraordinaire for sharing her knowledge and experience in the writing of this article.