By Deanna Raymond LMT, PTA
It is a given that the stressors of day-to-day life can have a cumulative effect on our physical health, mental health, our pain levels, sleep, and mood. We are conditioned to ignore our stress and push on, foregoing self-care to our detriment. Maybe we believe self-care is indulgent or we don’t have time for it. This could not be further from the truth. Remember the adage that “you cannot serve from an empty cup.” The more we push aside the moments that could decrease our stress and recharge us, the more we struggle to maintain our roles in work and family. It does not have to be that way. Small steps towards self-care can make a huge difference in our lives. A short walk out in nature, a 15-minute series of calming yoga poses, a massage; all serve to decrease our stress response and increase feelings of wellbeing. In this blog, we will look at massage therapy as an option to improve health in a myriad of ways and across many diagnoses and issues.
Massage, by definition, includes any skilled hands-on interventions that work toward improving a person’s well-being and/or function through manipulating skin, fascia, and muscles. It has immediate benefits such as improved sleep, decrease in pain, increase in relaxation and an increase in feelings of well-being. Touch is such a necessity for the whole of our health. It helps us to build our foundational relationships, supports social interaction, enables emotional sharing, and provides many health benefits.
Massage has been shown to decrease stress, first and foremost. Decreasing stress in turn has far reaching benefits to healing. Massage has been tested time and again for its effect on the nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is broken into two parts. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is associated with the stress response, our fight or flight response, increased heart rate and the release of stress hormones and inflammatory hormones like cortisol. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is associated with rest, relaxation, and a lower heart rate. Prolonged or chronic activity of the SNS can lead to health problems and an increase likelihood of high blood pressure or propensity to inflammatory diseases. Massage has been shown to increase our PNS response, thus lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels in as little as a 15-minute session.
When stress decreases in these ways, many other issues begin to see the benefit. Depression and anxiety go hand in hand with stress response. Across the anxiety spectrum (including anxiety secondary to chronic pain, mental health, end of life, surgery, fibromyalgia, pediatric chronic illnesses, etc.), massage has been shown to have positive benefits and improve self- reported anxiety scores. These benefits are reflected in the depression scores as well, showing a decrease in psychological distress and a decrease in SNS involvement. In a study of cancer patients, those receiving 30 minutes of massage 2 times a week for 4 weeks showed a reduction in anxiety, depression, and pain that lasted weeks longer than just seeing their physician for regular follow ups.
With regards to pain, chronic, post-operative or otherwise, massage has been proven to decrease pain intensity, pain response, and the length of recovery time as well as depression and anxiety related to ongoing pain. It increases feelings of calm and wellbeing, range of motion, flexibility and enhances mood. In an orthopedic setting post operatively for things like joint replacement and back surgery, massage as part of a patient’s plan of care gives better outcomes in pain reduction, range of motion and adherence to the therapy needed for an optimal recovery. For low back pain, a common ailment, studies show massage decreases pain, depression associated with chronic pain, improves flexibility, and improves sleep.
One of the most interesting benefits of massage is its ability to improve our immune system. There are superficial nerves that are affected by massage which connect to glands where T-cells are stored. T-cells, aka white blood cells, are important for fighting off many diseases like cancer and HIV. Studies have shown that massage has been proven to boost production of these cells by up to 20%. Massage is indicated in support of immune function during immunosuppression in cancer patients.
Massage has beneficial effects for many other issues such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, chemo- related nausea, migraines, TMJ pain, fibromyalgia and more. If all of this is possible with regular massage, then massage should be in our arsenal for optimal health and self-care.