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Massage therapy is the manipulation of soft body tissues to enhance health and well-being. Many people automatically assume massage therapy belongs to one of two categories: Swedish massage or deep tissue massage. However, there are a countless number of massage therapy modalities to choose from. Throughout the world, cultural variations on soft body tissue manipulation means there are massage modalities out there that many Americans have yet to encounter. In countries throughout the Eastern hemisphere, some unusual massage modalities use live creatures to administer massage.

Have you ever heard of a therapist employing live snakes, snails or fish during a massage session? Although it might seem bizarre, these creatures are legitimately used in specific massage applications.

Snake Massage

Snake massage is probably not the best choice for someone with a snake phobia. Nonetheless, several spas around the world (especially in Indonesia and Israel) position an armful of non-venomous snakes on a person’s (mostly) bare body.

The snakes’ writhing motion is therapeutic; large snakes knead tight muscles and small snakes produce a soothing effect. Besides their movement providing a unique sensation, the fear induced in the client releases adrenaline into the body, which is believed to positively impact metabolism – and boost energy levels.

Snake massages typically utilize pythons, which are cleaned, fed and have their mouths taped shut before each session. Despite animal rights issues and the potential for a snake to break open its taped mouth, the simultaneous energy boost and muscle relaxation garnered from this unusual modality are supporting snake massage’s growing popularity.

Snail Facial Massage

During a snail facial massage, meticulously raised Chilean or African snails crawl around a client’s face – leaving a trail of their slime behind. At the flagship Tokyo spa where snail facial massages began, the treatment continues after the live snails with massages, electrical pulse machines and moisturizing creams containing snail mucus. Believed to help repair and soften facial skin, snail creams have been popular in Korea and Japan for years.

Snails have been incorporated into beauty products for a long time – going back to Ancient Greece when Hippocrates recommended crushed snails to soothe inflamed skin. According to Marta Wohrle, creator of Truth in Aging, “The science is a bit vague, but fairly supportive. There is one study – seemingly independent – that looked at the mollusk secretions, cryptomphalus aspersa (SCA). The study found that it contained antioxidants and stimulated fibroblast proliferation and rearrangement of the actin cytoskeleton.”

Unfortunately, the evidence supporting snail facial massages does not yet exist. Any improvement in skin tone after a session could easily be attributed to the massage, electrical pulse machines or subsequent cream application. Regardless, the novelty inherent to snails roaming around the face makes snail facial massages a fascinating and unusual massage modality.

Fish Massage

Some people have heard of a fish pedicure but don’t realize that this same technique can be used for a full body massage. A fish pedicure, also known as a fish spa, involves patrons dipping their feet into a tub of water filled with small fish called Garra rufa. Sometimes referred to as ‘doctor fish,’ Garra rufa eat away dead skin found on peoples’ feet, leaving newer skin exposed.

Using fish for medical purposes began in Turkey, where some spas claim they can cure acne, eczema and psoriasis after lengthy, repeat immersions lasting eight hours a day, for three weeks. In Thailand, nibbling fish are also used for the entire body, where clients sit in a small pool of water filled with thousands of little fish. The fish swim around and eat people’s dead skin cells and massage the body at the same time. Instead of biting into living flesh, the toothless fish suck and devour loose bits of dead or unhealthy skin, providing an aquatic exfoliation. Advocates claim their submerged skin is remarkably soft following a fish pedicure or full body massage.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not aware of any published reports on illnesses resulting from fish pedicures; however, 10 states have banned this unusual practice. The primary concern over fish massage is hygiene:

  • The pedicure tubs or massage pools cannot be thoroughly cleaned between customers.
  • The fish themselves cannot be disinfected or sanitized between customers.

Thus, authorities in several countries are concerned that fish pedicures or fish massages have the capability of spreading infectious diseases. In addition, Chinese Chinchin are often mislabeled as Garra rufa and used in fish pedicures. Chinese Chinchin grows teeth and can draw blood, increasing the risk of infection.

There are many unusual massage modalities found around the globe, yet some of the seemingly most bizarre approaches fulfill the goal of soft body tissue manipulation to enhance health and well-being. The three live creature massages described above may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Although, many adventurous spa and massage recipients swear by the health benefits reaped from snake, snail and fish massages.