Have you ever started a new health regimen or supplement program, and instead of immediately feeling vibrant and alive like you imagined you would, you start off feeling not-so-great? You might get a mild headache, feel nauseous or perhaps even feel like you are coming down with the flu. Alternative medicine therapists commonly refer to this as a healing crisis. It is temporary and normal. It doesn’t happen to every single one of us and it shouldn’t necessarily be expected, but it’s important for us to understand the concept so that we don’t think the therapy has made us sick or that it’s not working. On the contrary, often the symptoms experienced during the healing crisis can be a signal that the therapy is indeed working, and the body is undergoing a mild “detoxification” period.
A healing crisis is very prevalent with Manual Lymphatic Drainage. I experience it myself almost every time I receive it: I feel mildly nauseous and I get a headache. My symptoms lasted for about 20 minutes the first time I had MLD, but now that my lymphatic system has been awakened by the therapy, they last for only a few minutes if I get them at all. Since one of the main functions of the lymphatic system is to remove toxins from the body, it would make sense that the body would have some transient reactions to the toxin upheaval created by the therapy. After all, we live in a polluted world. The lymphatic system is generally very efficient at removing the toxins we ingest from the body, but with the sheer number of pollutants we are exposed to these days it is not unfathomable that some may accumulate in the body. Through lymphatic drainage and other types of massage, toxins can be dislodged and flushed into the bloodstream and lymphatic channels to be eliminated. As they circulate through our systems, it is normal for us to feel a little worse before feeling better.
These mild and temporary symptoms are not to be confused with a Herxheimer reaction. The Herxheimer reaction was originally coined as the body’s reaction to antibiotics in the form of “die-off symptoms”. A very simplified version of the theory says that as antibiotics kill off germs, the cellular debris and released endotoxins are dumped into the bloodstream faster than the body can eliminate them, causing an adverse reaction. Over the last hundred years there has been much controversy in the medical community about the nature of, the validity and even the science behind the Herxheimer reaction. In recent past, this idea has been misappropriated by some aggressive detox protocols and marketed as a positive thing. In reality, a severe detox protocol can actually poison the body. The liver and kidneys cannot necessarily handle accumulated toxins being released into the bloodstream all at once, which is why it is so important to undergo therapies that engage the body slowly and support the detoxification pathways. The fevers, violent vomiting and diarrhea that can result from aggressive and unsupported juice cleanse protocols, for example, are not what I am referring to when I use the term “healing crisis”.
My belief is that gentle treatment is always the best. My own personal supplementation protocols reflect this gentleness, as I always start with the smallest dosage and try never to overwhelm my body but rather gradually support it. I follow this philosophy in my massage practice as well: even my deep work is done gently, as I enter and exit the tissues slowly and with respect. I would also never perform a full-body MLD session on a client in the middle of a cleanse, as this would involve stimulating the spleen, liver and kidneys when they are already taxed. As a practitioner, there is a delicate balance between supporting the body through healing and creating a detrimental Herxheimer reaction. It is easy to over-treat a client, so it is important to start slowly and communicate well regarding the nature and severity of their physical reaction to the treatment.
In addition to the physical reaction, there might be an accompanying emotional reaction. Again, this is not to be expected or elicited. However, it is good to be aware of the possibility to avoid fear or worry. Sometimes during healing, the therapy will stir up an emotional reaction. With MLD in particular, my clients will later report experiencing an old sorrow or disappointment that they hadn’t realized they were holding on to, at some point during the therapy. Certain toxins can affect specific neurotransmitters which can trigger parts of the brain that govern emotions. In addition, we all have feelings trapped in muscles and lymph, regardless of our belief system. The knee is a common place for suppressed emotions to be stored. As muscles get massaged and lymph gets circulated, a past emotion might get released. Normally it passes within a few minutes and clients simply acknowledge it and let it go. A bigger emotional release, like crying or laughing, can also sometimes happen, and this, too, is normal. As a massage therapist, anything other than compassionately listening should the client choose to discuss it later is outside of my scope of practice. Normally nothing more is needed, but if a client realizes that there is a buried issue that needs resolving, there are trauma therapists that can be very beneficial.
It is normal to experience a mild physical or emotional reaction to healing work. Especially if we have neglected our health for many years or have been sick for a long time, a healing crisis is almost inevitable. Provided the symptoms seem reasonably mild, it is important to ride them out and not to abandon the therapy. As with everything, however, communication with your practitioner is key.
The Complete Guide to Lymph Drainage Massage, Second Edition, Ramona Moody French, 2012.