Therapeutic compression treatments have been around forever to help treat cardiovascular issues and lymphatic issues in the body…
…but until now I have only seen them used in hospital settings.
There is a new trend that offers compression therapy in a spa setting, where you can sit for a 30 or 60 minute period of time, wearing a garment that inflates (similar to a large blood pressure cuff) on and off, forcing blood and lymphatic fluids up the limbs.
It’s called intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) and it’s something I’m familiar with because we put these exact same inflatable boots on patients after surgery, to prevent blood clots.
It’s also the same idea behind therapeutic lymphatic massage, often prescribed to patients after removal of lymph nodes and/or with other causes of lymphedema in the arms or legs.
At the center where I gave it a go, you can choose to compress either your arms or your legs. I went for leg compression and here’s how it went:
The low down:
I loved it, but it took a few minutes of getting used to… at first I was nervous about how tight it was getting. But about halfway through the treatment, I began to love it because I started thinking of it as a very firm, strong massage.
No foot or leg massage I’ve ever gotten was as powerfully awesome as this full compression of both my feet and legs. So if you are like me and love a strong massage, this might be a great option for you.
Not so sure.
From my medical experience, we are taught that this type of therapy has to be done daily to see benefit. So I scoured the medical literature to double check and as expected, there is no research showing that a one time session has any benefit whatsoever.
While IPC has definite, and proven, therapeutic benefit to many conditions — from prevention of DVTs/blood clots to treatment for chronic venous insufficiency to lymphedema, and even as a novel treatment for knee arthritis — all of these treatments require daily IPC use for weeks at a time.
Ongoing, daily, long term IPC therapy is awesome clinically, but is there any the role of compression therapy in a spa setting?
Here are my take aways from today’s trial of a spa offering of compression therapy:
1. As a one-off, there are no long term medically proven benefits:
The pro to having a spa offer compression therapy is that it allows you to have this healing modality accessible without seeing a doctor, without a prescription to a physical therapists office, or a rehab facility, or even a medical exam at all.
If you want to have your arms or legs deeply squeezed to reduce swelling, you can walk in any time and have a treatment. This puts you in control and makes therapy more accessible, which I appreciate.
At the same time, I have concerns that someone may seek this therapy and find it does more harm than good.
- For example, if you have an active blood clot, I would not want you to do compression therapy unsupervised, as it might shift or move the clot, which can cause serious consequences if it travels to the lungs.
- Another example… if you have swelling from trauma (for example a sprained ankle or knee) I would not want you to do compression therapy unless you’ve had a fracture ruled out, as putting pressure on an injury can make it worse, even to the point where a fracture could become so misaligned it would require surgery to realign it.
And on top of that, even if it was a medically indicated reason to do IPC (such as long standing lymphedema, recovery after lymph node removal surgery, chronic venous insufficiency, prevention of DVTs, to increase blood return in congestive heart failure patients with edema, etc…) I would want my patients to do IPC every single day for a long period of time, not just once.
Are there any indications for doing this therapy just once? I can think of two:
- As a workout recovery tool — after a strenuous run or a marathon or other competition, if you just need a strong massage to get the lactic acid mobilized and help support muscle recovery, I could see coming in for a single treatment.
- Massage — if you love deep tissue massage and want to specifically focus on your feet and legs, or hands and arms… this will be an amazing tool for you, deeper than what the human hands can do in a traditional massage, and available without doctor’s orders.
The bottom line for different levels of compression therapy:
- In hospital use: we use pneumatic compression devices for prevention of blood clots after surgery & for increasing circulation and decreasing lymphedema during rehabilitation, where they can be worn for long periods of time under supervision
- At home use: at home, you can use IPC devices for continue prevention of blood clots, for treatment of chronic venous insufficiency and other vascular issues, for treatment of lymphedema and other swelling issues, and for joint rehab/support, at your doctor’s recommendation
- In spa use: as a one time therapy, consider use for work out recovery &/or as a treat, if you like deep tissue massage and want to focus on either your arms or legs, while saving money over traditional massage
2. It’s one of the more affordable holistic therapeutic options on the market:
My 30 minute session costs $25… much less expensive than a massage and for me, more effective.
However, as I mention above, to really use this therapy for anything more than just a one time massage, you need to do it daily.
The compression tool they used on me in the spa is from Normatec and cost about $1,300.
But… there are decent looking at home versions that run about $250, like this model here.
That means, if you plan to go 10 or more times, you might as well invest in a set of compression boots that you can use on a daily basis at home.
Used daily, this opens up a huge range of therapeutic options that one in-spa treatment session just can’t touch.
And the medical literature backs this up. Long term use has been proven in the:
- prevention of blood clots and DVTs
- in decreasing lymphedema of lower extremities
- increasing blood return in chronic venous insufficiency
- increased wound healing in difficult to treat ulcer patients
- even improving quality of life with joint issues such as knee osteoarthritis
The bottom line:
if you have a chronic issue you would like to address with compression therapy, talk to your doctor to be sure it will be helpful for your particular concern, and consider purchasing an at-home unit if you want long term results.
3. There are alternatives to IPC that have been proven to work and are even more easily accessible than visiting a spa or ordering equipment that costs hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars:
- KT tape has been shown to work in a similar way to IPC, and can be worn for long periods of time, is inexpensive, and discrete. No more sitting imobilized for long periods of time anchored to a machine, KT tape allows you to get up and go, wearing the support without anyone even knowing you are. This study — just published on Sept 9, 2019 in Clinical Rehabilitation, looked at using KT tape in breast cancer patients who had lymph nodes removed, and researchers found that KT tape was superior to IPC therapy in that it decreased swelling while at the same time enhancing range of motion in a way that IPC was not able to do.
- Compression garments, like compression socks (often used for diabetics or those with heart failure who have poor lower extremity circulation) and compression arm sleeves (often used after lymph nodes are removed from the axilla) are functional, effective and inexpensive
On deck, I’m set to try IV therapy, sauna, micronutrient testing, cryotherapy, fasting, cupping, ear candling and… got any other holistic therapies you’d like to see me test for you and do a medical literature review on?
Simply email me at koniverMD@gmail.com and I’ll add it to my list!