Detox. Rejuvenation. Anti-inflammatory. De-stress. Behold some of the greatest buzzwords in today’s wellness culture.
They’re also terms that were employed in my recent conversations about the lymphatic massage, a health practice that’s been around for decades but has worked its way into the mainstream (via rhythmic hands and machines) here in 2020.
Aside from being a nice, tongue-twisting bit of iambic pentameter, What makes lymphatic massage therapy so special? Why has it gone from being a treatment for patients with heart conditions and cancer, to a Goop-sanctioned staple of upscale spas and swimsuit models? And more than that: What even is a lymphatic massage, and is it worth your money, as it can range from $50 to $350 a session? Let’s review.
Start with the basics: What is the lymphatic system?
The network of tissues and organs known as the lymphatic system is “like the immune vessel of the body,” says Joshua Scallan, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Florida’s College of Medicine whose lab focuses on lymphatic vascular biology.
The lymphatic system maintains fluid balance as it transports infection-fighting substances and disposes of unwanted materials. According to Scallan, the lymphatic research field has “exploded” lately, thanks to advancements in genetic technology. Simultaneously, it seems laypeople have shown interest in their body’s immune vessel. According to Yelp, mentions of “lymphatic drainage” increased by 36% in the past year as centers offering the treatment have been popping up all over Los Angeles and New York City. And celebrity fitness trainers including Lauren E. Kleban of LEKFIT and Tracy Anderson teach trampoline classes because, as Kleban says, they’re “one of the best ways to activate the lymphatic system.”
Why get a lymphatic massage?
While the primary objective of typical Swedish massage is to relieve muscle tension, the goal of a lymphatic massage is to speed up the transport of lymph (fluid with white blood cells) through the lymphatic vessel system.
One specific manual lymph massage style, the Vodder technique, has been around since namesake Dr. Emil Vodder employed it in the south of France in the ‘30s.
Anne Bramham, the founder of Advanced Spa Therapy and Education Certification Council, has been teaching the Vodder technique for 25 years. She sees the treatment “becoming popular lately” because it achieves something that wellness enthusiasts are seeking: Detoxification.
“It’s really gaining attention because it offers a natural rejuvenation,” says Bramham, who lists improved skin tone, deeper sleep and better digestion among the benefits of the treatment.
The massage works “like a vacuum that pulls all of the cellular matter waste from the tissues (through a) light pressure technique and rhythmical stretch and release of tissues.”
According to Scallan, the lymphatic massage primarily works as a treatment for Lymphedema, a condition sometimes caused by chemotherapy where fluid collects in the tissues and causes swelling. But Bramhan thinks the massage is a fit for “everybody” and makes patients feel better and “lighter.”
What is a lymphatic massage like?
You know that brain tingle you get when someone drops the steel claws of a scalp massager onto your head? A full body lymphatic drainage massage feels something like that.
I got my first one at Santa Monica’s Shape House, a celebrity-approved wellness boutique (stars from Selena Gomez to LL Cool J are customers). Shape House has been offering lymphatic massages since it opened in 2012, and recommends pairing the 55-minute treatment ($65) with its signature 55-minute sweat session (also $65), so I did.
Here’s where I need to share a disclaimer: The morning of my appointment, I woke up with a low fever and a headache, so I went to urgent care to take a flu test that came back negative. After a doctor assured me that I had no contagious illnesses, I proceeded with my appointment.
But first, I took “before” pictures, because celebrity massage therapists have taught me to do this. The polite women working at Shape House made sure I didn’t feel embarrassed about posing in front of their wall filled with fake grass and pretend orange slices.
The hard part over, my treatment could begin. For their lymphatic massages, Shape House offers a machine (as opposed to a human therapist) that looks like a bright blue space suit split into leg pieces, arm shapes and a waist cover that strapped onto me. When the massager went on, it felt as if my limbs were made of those ’90s water snake toys, and the machine was a pair of hands that had to keep squeezing my arms and legs slowly so that my gel-filled appendages wouldn’t slip out of its grip. It felt like a boa constrictor was swallowing my body but in a very comfortable way. There was a warm prickly sensation on the back of my head. I emerged calm.
My sweat session that went after the massage wasn’t quite as dreamy and meditative. I learned later that my fever unsurprisingly spiked from my time under an insulated blanket because someone who is sick (even if a doctor insists they don’t have the flu) should not spend an hour being miserable and sweaty.
So does it make you feel better and lighter?
Although my full-body “after” pictures show a profusely sweaty person who otherwise looks a lot like the dry person from two hours earlier (and not different enough for me to share my embarrassing photos here), I did feel different following my treatment. I felt, what’s the word? Lighter! I felt less puffy and also so zen that I couldn’t possibly be stressed. My skin looked bright and dewy, and I am not typically someone who uses those words to describe something other than grass. I even took a bathroom selfie because I thought my face looked nice.
Did I look like a hundred bucks? Not quite, but I do recommend trying a lymphatic session once, perhaps when you can get a first-time user discount (like I admittedly did). After that, there are plenty of free videos online that show you how to give yourself the massage (which I also did).
I did go on to suffer from something that felt a lot like the flu after my treatment. But my skin continued to look, dare I say, radiant for weeks. And at a time of the month when I’m typically my most bloated, somehow I was not. If only the lymphatic massage could cure my nasty cough.