Aromatherapy for Lymphatic Drainage and/or Swelling


While Med Essential Oils has its own Lymphatic Drainage formula as a massage oil, I thought some of you may want to learn about essential oils  for lymphatic drainage to reduce swelling and perhaps even create your own blend.  I hope you enjoy this article that was published on Massage Magazine’s website on May 6, 2016.swollen handsLymphedema arm and leg

Six Essential Oils that Reduce Lymphedema and/or Swelling

Lymphedema is the accumulation of lymph fluid under the skin or, in other words, swelling.  The swelling of this sort indicates lymphatic insufficiency or lymphatic  stagnation and it is usually caused by blockage that prevents the necessary flow of lymph through the lymphatic system.  Why is this important?  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/or toxins. This potentially illness-bearing lymph is then collected and channeled to lymph nodes, where the bacteria and other foreign substances are destroyed or rendered non-functional by various white blood cells or lymphocytes.  The spent lymph and debris are collected by the circulatory system and then flushed out of the body by the urinary system. 1,2,3 When the lymphatic system is blocked, it cannot carry out its pathogen-fighting activity and becomes stagnant thus impairing the immune system.  In addition to swelling and immune system impairment, stagnant, toxic lymph may cause on-site inflammation and infection. Unchecked, lymphedema or stagnation may cause long term serious painful conditions such as cellulitis.10 You may find that after using essential oils for lymphatic stagnancy and lymphedema that clients will experience less swelling at site, decreased body bloat, glandular swelling, and joint swelling followed by decreased pain.  Clients often tell of increased energy and improvement in emotional outlook.

Lymphedema or lymphatic stagnancy is often seen when the lymphatic nodes or lymphatic vessels are removed or damaged by the surgical procedures and/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 where the lymphatic vessels or nodes have been damaged.  Additionally, inflammatory processes of arthritis can compromise lymphatic vessels or nodes and cause swelling.  We commonly see lymphedema affecting arms and legs, but it can also affect the face, neck, torso, and even genitalia.10

Lack of sleep and improper diet can also cause lymphatic stagnancy.    It is during sleep that our immune and lymphatic systems perform house cleaning tasks of the body.  If the body is very sleep deprived, these processes are hampered and stagnation or swelling may occur. 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.  This kind of lymphatic insufficiency can be avoided on a daily basis, yet clients may be unaware of this and may need assistance of lymphatic draining essential oils.11.12

It is estimated that there are 10 million cases of lymphedema or lymphatic diseases in the United States and that there are 900,000 cases of post surgical breast cancer cases alone.  Lymphedema can produce mild discomfort to severe pain and disfigurement.  If can become a long term painful, depressing disability. 10

There are specific essential oils that reduce swollen tissue remarkably well by lymphatic stimulation and their anti inflammatory properties, promoting lymph circulation.   The citrus family of essential oils is notable for this.  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, the citrus oils are also known to have diuretic properties which assists the body ridding itself of lymphatic waste via the urinary tract.  A caution regarding using 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.  Thus a safety consideration is that skin treated with citrus oils should not be exposed to sunlight or tanning bed exposure 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, shielding it from the sun.  Other than this, citrus oils are reported to be non-toxic.   Note well, that there is conflicting source information regarding grapefruit essential oil.  It is considered non-photosensitizing by some, and photosensitizing by others. 4,5,7,8  The difference is that grapefruit essential oil that has been produced via steam distillation instead of cold press has had the furocoumarins removed which cause  photosentization in citrus essential oils.   If you know  that the grapefruit essential oil that you have has been produced via steam distillation there should not be a problem.  However,  be on the side of caution and use grapefruit essential oils as you would the other citrus essential oils and assume it is photosenthesizing.    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, for example?  The emotional feature of these oils provide comfort in the face of pain in a difficult and possibly depressing situation.  4.5.6, 9

Geranium essential oil is also a lymphatic stimulant and anti  inflammatory agent.  There are many cultivated forms, varieties and hybrids of geranium. For this writing, I refer to pelargonium gravelolens or bourbon geranium.  As with the 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 non-toxic, non-irritating and non-sensitizing.  Geranium has a pleasant, clean floral scent and is attributed to relieving 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 helps to protect the integrity of the skin.  Supporting the skin structures is important as lymphatic swelling can damage skin structures.  4,5,6

So how do you choose which oil to use?  Start with client preference – which scent does your client like?  Or which combination?  Just be sure to dilute these oils before application.  A 2.5% dilution is acceptable for full body massage or you may increase to 5% for treating a smaller area.  It is important to use organic oils or oils that are free of pesticides and are unadulterated.  These oils may be used to amplify results during certified lymphedema treatments or during regular light pressure massage toward the heart, concentrating on the afflicted area.

There are other factors that can be considered to create a blend of oils to address lymphedema, lymphatic stagnancy or lymphatic insufficiency.  These factors include the health and efficiency of the circulatory and urinary systems, toxic load of the liver, general health of the immune system and the health of the integumentary systems.  If these systems or organs need support, oils for them could be included in a blend.  For now, enjoy exploring the above-cited citrus oils and geranium.  They are effective as single oils and can be included easily in your massage practice to give some relief to lymphatic woes.


Carol M. Quigless

Clinical Aromatherapist

Founder of MedEssential Oils



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