Beauty / Trend

Do lymphatic drainage massages really work?

It was 10:50am and I was going to be late to my appointment at Ricari Studios. I hate being late, and I’m always late. I drove fast with a familiar frustrated knot in my chest. Angry at the pointless things I was doing that delayed my leaving the house sooner. Thinking about the irony of rushing to a scheduled appointment to relax. A podcast episode in which Dr. Russell Barkley – the world’s leading expert in the study of ADHD – revealed the disorder can reduce life expectancy by as much as 13 years due, in part, to people doing exactly as I am comes to mind. I tell myself to slow down. To breathe. That even if I don't meet an untimely death, the cortisol running through my body can’t be good for it either. 

It turns out, Ricari Studios, creators of the celebrity-beloved full-body and face cellular stimulation treatment dubbed the 'Ricari method', are used to people walking in their doors feeling similarly. “When you live in a big city, these stresses are almost impossible to avoid,” says my specialist, Kayla, upon arrival. “Even if you’d left the house on time, there’s traffic to contend with, notifications pulling us to our screens constantly, and other people’s energies impacting our own.” 

Most people get Ricari Studios’ treatments to help with stress management, Kayla says, once I’m lying face up, wearing one of the white full bodysuits you’ve no doubt seen on Instagram, in the treatment room at L’Ermitage – the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel Ricari Studios calls its L.A. home. (Renowned esthetician Joanna Czech has just opened her first westside location in residence, too). I’m surprised to hear this: almost everything I’ve heard about lymphatic drainage – one part of what’s happening during a Ricari Studios treatment –  is that it helps to debloat and slim limbs, AKA make you skinnier almost immediately — albeit temporarily. 

Lymphatic drainage has risen steadily in popularity over the past few years thanks to the likes of educational TikTok videos and big-name celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Dua Lipa, Hailey Bieber and Jennifer Aniston publicly having routine treatments, resulting in a 2022 WWD article proclaiming, "Lymphatic Massage Is Celebrities’ Current Favorite Wellness Go-to." Hollywood celebrities will visit Ricari Studios before a red carpet event, and others perhaps before a friend's wedding — or routinely every week in the lead up to their own.

“People often get a treatment before a big event because of the physical benefits,” founder Anna Zahn tells me later on the phone — and it's true: you will look slimmer in the days following. But despite this, and the allure of marketing a business toward the exterior benefits — especially in today’s thin-obsessed society — Zahn prefers a refreshingly holistic approach. "Much of the wellness industry is marketed toward aesthetics and the beauty narrative: blast your fat, get rid of cellulite. People are very result driven, and that sells," she says. "But it's what’s happening inside the body that is so much more important." Those who come in seeking these aesthetic changes notice after regular visits they are sleeping better, have less anxiety, their digestion has improved and they feel they feel better in their bodies. "It often eclipses the beauty benefits that originally drove them to seek out these treatments." 

Where did lymphatic drainage massages originate?

Though repackaged for today's consumerist customer, versions of lymphatic drainage massage have been evident going back centuries. Throughout history, if you look at Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, and the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, they all have historical references to moving fluid around in the body to promote healing, Zahn says. The term as we know it today came about in the early 1930s when Emil Vodder, a Danish massage therapist, theorised that massage might mobilise fluid in the lymph system of sick patients with swollen lymph nodes, thus helping the body to eliminate toxins faster — and patients to heal sooner. Vodder was correct and, in 1936, introduced “manual lymph drainage” to the medical community in Paris. Eventually, the treatment became something available in spas and its benefits overwhelmingly marketed toward changing the shape of one's body, rather than health. 

Photo: Ricari Studios (Carlotta Carlini)


How do lymphatic drainage massages work?

In many Western lymphatic drainage massages, the practitioner will use a light touch to lightly massage areas in the body that hold fluid. A Ricari Studios treatment looks a little different. There are three stages, two of which involve a large sci-fi-like machine: body work, face work, and a leg compressor. Treatments can be tailored for people's specific needs, whether it's improving digestion, or aiding in symptoms of the likes of PCOS. The machine uses a combination of air pressure, rhythmic vibrations, and micro stimulation with the focus on conditioning of the skin and connective tissue, creating mobility in the body in the form of lymphatic drainage, blood circulation, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes the relaxation state, and helping to encourage collagen and elastin production in the body through rhythmic frequencies. 

"The major player is your connective tissue and your fascia," Zahn explains. "It's made up of collagen fibres and is the tapestry that weaves our bodies together. It holds everything in place, but it's also encompassing all these various systems: your lymphatic system, your circulatory system, and your nervous system. So when you're conditioning the body and the skin, you're allowing for more mobility and more flow in the body, which allows your body to heal itself. If your lymphatic system is stagnant because your body is stagnant and stressed, your cells aren't getting the oxygen or fresh blood flow they need. We want to move into that place of flexibility with our tissue, and when we do that, it opens up a lot of healing in the body." 

As the device moves over my skin, I realise how little I know about what is inside me. My organs feel foreign and alien, things only worth paying attention to once something goes wrong. Other than the obvious – drinking less, not smoking, eating wholefoods, exercising — we're not told all that much about what we can do to ensure our bodies stay healthy. Things like massage, acupuncture and even therapy are deemed luxuries — not parts of the same puzzle. "I think Western culture is late in that self care is seen more as a frivolous expenditure that we spend too much money on. It's a luxury instead of a necessity. And that doesn't necessarily have to mean you're going in for treatment all the time," Zahn says. "Incorporating things like going to the Korean spa for a scrub into your life is going to continue to encourage the benefits, and compression wear is amazing. It can be as simple as taking time to breathe, walking, drinking water, connecting with yourself and connecting with others."


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