Do Lymphatic Drainage Massages Work?

Updated 08/30/19
lymphatic drainage massage
Natalie Off Duty

I'm a lifestyle editor living in Los Angeles, so it was only a matter of time before I became a firm believer in the power of holistic wellness treatments. This may not sound like much, but as someone who got kicked out of her first yoga class for checking her email, I'd say I've come a long way. This change occurred when I read about a treatment that promised to deliver the same level of pampering and relaxation as a massage but with more long-term benefits, like an immunity boost; healthier-looking skin; reduced cellulite, stress, and bloating; better quality of sleep; and an improved metabolism. All this, and all I had to do was lie back and relax? Sign me up.

This magical treatment is called a lymphatic drainage massage, and works by stimulating oxygen distribution throughout your body and warding off toxins. To give it a try, I reached out to two of Los Angeles' hippest wellness spas, The Now and Shape House (which also has locations in New York), to see if this massage lived up to the hype. Though both are relatively affordable ($75 for a 50 minute "The Stretch" massage at The Now, and $50 for a session at Shape House) and charming. Their wellness menus are drastically different, as is their approach to stimulating the lymphatic system. So if you're curious to find out which techniques might suit you best, read about my experiences and takeaways.

How the Lymphatic System Works

"The lymphatic system is like a freeway," the founder of Shape House, Sophie Chiche, told me. It ensures our fluids (predominantly water) are running efficiently throughout the body as our heart pumps blood to distribute oxygen. So, a sluggish lymphatic system means that our fluids can become stagnant, which can result in water retention, infections, bloating, and cellulite. While our bodies are self-draining, an occasional lymphatic drainage massage is really great for anyone who feels run down, is on the brink of a cold, or simply needs a quick detox to get them back on track for the week ahead.

The Now: The Lymphatic Stimulation Massage

The Now
Tessa Neustadt / The Now

The Now has a stylish, quintessential California feel. It was well-decorated and staffed with accommodating and kind people, and I felt an immediate release from the stress of the day when I arrived for the treatment. My masseuse sat down with me before, to hear a little about what I was looking for and explain to me what this massage would accomplish. With a background in physical therapy, her goal was to increase my range of motion by lengthening my muscles and reducing inflammation.

It started out like a normal massage, though it quickly became much more involved, shall we say. Since I was being stretched and pulled in every direction, I took a more active role than I would have during a Swedish massage. Though I did find it relaxing, I was also alert and aware of my body in ways that I'm not normally. For example, as someone who spends a lot of time typing at a desk, I know there was bound to be some tension in my upper body. But until this treatment, I had no idea that my armpits and calves could be a source of bloating.

After the Treatment

lymphatic drainage
Tessa Neustadt/The Now

My biggest takeaway was that typing can actually strain my armpits. My massage therapist also mentioned that there can be built-up fluid there from wearing tight bras for a long time, which is something I hadn't considered before. I now make an effort to stretch my arms throughout the day to keep my blood flow more stabilized, which has helped. I was also surprised to find that my calves were so strained since I sit for most of the day. I wear heels pretty much every day and never notice any soreness, so it was interesting to hear that it's impacted my circulation but not so much my posture. The most immediate effects that I noticed following the massage were more short term, like more comfort the following day in the areas she focused on and increased flexibility.

Shape House: The Lymphatic Drainage Treatment

The lymphatic drainage treatment at The Now wasn't a traditional massage by any means, but it was still somewhat familiar and what I'd been expecting. So, when I went to try the lymphatic drainage treatment at Shape House, I was in for a surprise. Rather than lying down on my stomach and under a sheet, I was instructed to change out of my clothing and step into a pair of sweats and a long-sleeve T-shirt. The environment was really low-key and relaxed, which made me feel comfortable instantly, and the sweats they provided were also optimal for a Netflix binge.

Once I was changed, a gentle and attentive woman strapped me into a machine much like a giant blood pressure sleeve (it's not nearly as scary as it sounds). Before my attendant left the room, she placed some water by my bed, gave me a pair of headphones, and told me to simply relax and watch some television. As the machine lightly squeezed my feet, limbs, and torso, I simply sat back for an hourlong viewing party of The Office. I must've dozed off because before I knew it, my attendant was there to release me from the machine.

After the Treatment

I enjoyed some orange slices and then spoke with Chiche to learn a little more about what I'd just experienced. She explained that the lymphatic drainage machine replicates the human heart by pushing bodily fluids throughout the body. "It gives the body a jump start and a rest" at the same time, Chiche said. In other words, the machine speeds up your lymphatic system while slowing you down and allowing you to rest since it's doing the work for you. This made a lot of sense to me, as I felt significantly less frazzled than I did when I arrived. I also walked into the treatment on the brink of a cold, which was completely gone by the next day.

Shape House also offers sweat sessions, in which you can burn as many as 1,600 calories—the equivalent of a 10-mile jog, according to Chiche.

She says you'll see the best results by doing a sweating session after the lymphatic drainage session. The sweating sessions are a bit different, in that you're wrapped in a blanket and heat is applied, though the basic setup is similar since you still get to sit back and watch television for an hour.

The Verdict

The Now: I personally love getting massages to let my muscles completely relax during the hour that I spend on the table. So if you're someone who likes being able to communicate with your therapist or you want the massage to be tailored to your body, then this is the treatment for you. While I did learn a bit more about how my lifestyle impacts how efficient or sluggish my body is, at the end of the day, it's still closer to a traditional massage in that it's a great way to unwind, but it's not as targeted toward lymphatic drainage.

Shape House: What I liked most about this treatment was that I had absolute privacy because the massage was administered by a machine. Unlike the traditional massage, which left me feeling more limber and energized, I felt well-rested, considerably less run-down, and physically lighter. While it didn't seem like there was anything actually happening during the treatment, the immediate results were more obvious. So if you'd rather see real results to overturn a sluggish lymphatic system than gett pampered with a traditional massage, opt for this treatment.

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