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The 121-Year-Old Art of Lymphatic Massage

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

One day last month, a celebrity facialist's team flew into town. We got lucky. It's a three-month-long wait for an appointment at this clinic in Dusseldorf. "It's a special face massage technique," a staff confides. A little probing revealed that this coveted massage draws from the manual lymph drainage technique, which instantaneously slims the face.

How does this seemingly magical technique work? Eager for a quick fix, I found my way to a clinic that specialises in full-body lymphatic massage. 

"Massage is often seen as an Asian practice, but I think few people know that lymphatic drainage is actually Western science," general manager Joyce Chu exclaims. The method was in fact, founded by a Danish professor in 1896. He took an interest in physical medicine and studied the lymph vessel system extensively. The idea was to lightly pump the lymphatic nodes and vessels. This way, blood and lymphatic fluids will be evenly distributed around the body. 

"It went to Denmark, Paris, Europe, North America," Chu continues. Later, it arrived in Asia. It's popular in China, where the technique is often fused with traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. In many cases, practitioners work in hospitals, administering this alternative medicine to patients.

"It was used to heal muscle and bone damage, in particular, the swelling that occurs in muscles when your bones are broken." She adds that the method is also frequented by breast cancer patients, although its benefits are not scientifically proven. "When people have breast cancer, the lymph nodes are removed. The [fluids] cannot circulate and they have swollen arms. Lymphatic massage helps to drain the water when you cannot eliminate it." 

As we watched the customers leave after their session, Chu admits that majority of them are here for lymphatic drainage's slimming perks. Face or body massage, it works the same. "They have water retention around the face... because the lymphatic drainage is not good." When excess water is removed, there's momentary relief and weight loss. Chu argues that the effects boast more longevity than that. 

The lymph is a fluid that contains oxygen and carbon dioxide, white blood cells, and metabolic waste – quite like the water pipes that runs through residential apartments. Waste products and fluids are filtered in the kidneys, and they eventually leave the body. It's a detoxification process. "Most people feel like they need to go [to the washroom] after the massage," a Chinese practitioner chimes in. 

A session lasts for an hour. The therapist was extremely well-versed. She explained her every move conscientiously. There are five major lymph nodes on the body – side of the neck, back of the triceps, underarms, and the inner thighs. Sometimes she finds swollen lymph nodes. And that's not a good sign – it signifies infection, injury, or even cancer. After a lymphatic massage, "you feel a lot lighter immediately, better sleep. This is the immediate sign that it is very good," Chu explains. When the therapy ended, I dutifully bolted for the washroom. 

The science presented by Chu and the practitioner was logical and convincing. But truth be told, other than a desperate dash for the bathroom, I didn't feel anything else. I started negotiating, "Maybe it's meant to be natural like this. Maybe it's working, but I'm not feeling it. Maybe my body isn't responsive. Maybe it requires regular sessions to take effect. Well, at least I'm not in pain." 

More research revealed that scientific literature on this technique remains scarce. And the conclusions are ambiguous. In a time when alternative medicine is on the rise, the threat of pseudoscience looms large. Caveat emptor, they say. 

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