Touch is a powerful – and instinctual – method of pain relief. When you’re running and get a stitch in your side, your first reaction is to place your hand on the spot that hurts. When the muscles in your neck tighten, it’s natural to reach up and start kneading the area. Our ability to gain relief through touch is likely the reason that written evidence of massage therapy dates back to 2700 B.C. in China.

Today, folks in pain are rediscovering the power of massage. The American Massage Therapy Association found that 43 percent of those surveyed in 2017 cited medical reasons – such as pain relief and injury recovery – as the reason they sought a massage. Furthermore, 9 out of 10 people felt that massage positively contributed to health and wellness.

Indeed, massage therapy has been demonstrated to relieve a variety of types of pain, including chronic lower back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and chronic tension headaches, as well as pain experienced by cancer patients. Research has found that massage produces short-term pain relief, but that the benefits continue to accrue when used in conjunction with other treatment strategies.

Even hospital patients – whether hospitalized because of surgery, childbirth, or a medical condition – report significant pain reduction following massage therapy. In fact, beginning January 1, 2018, the Joint Commission will implement new pain assessment and management standards for hospitals. These benchmarks acknowledge the importance of pain management in patient-centered care and include massage therapy as a non-pharmacologic treatment strategy for pain management.

The Mechanisms of Pain Relief

While there are many massage techniques, therapeutic touch often involves stroking, kneading, or percussing the painful area. Canadian researchers found that massage tamped down inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that cause muscular inflammation and pain. At the same time, massage triggered other proteins that instruct the muscles to generate mitochondria, which in turn improve muscles’ ability to recover after exertion.

Massage also stimulates blood flow, both by literally moving blood through vessels and by warming up muscles. Research substantiates that muscle blood volume increases as a result of massage therapy. Blood delivers oxygen to muscle cells, which in turn stimulates cellular health and the removal of waste products.

Many people experience chronic pain as a result of injuries to the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds and stabilizes major blood vessels, muscles, and organs. Massage therapy can ease that fascia-related pain.

Muscle relaxation can also be a key component in relieving pain from nerve compression. Tight muscles can grip nerve pathways; once the tension is released, the nerve is no longer compressed and pain is lessened. Massage therapy also boosts the functioning of the lymphatic system, and helps the reabsorption of fluids causing painful soft tissue swelling.

The Right Technique

There are more than two dozen massage therapy techniques, but most can be assigned to one of four categories: light touch, deep tissue, energy, and condition specific.

Light Touch: Swedish massage is likely the best-known type of light massage, and is characterized by gliding strokes, kneading, and rocking. The Bowen Technique employs light touch alternating with rest periods to support the body’s own healing. Thai massage uses passive stretching and the trigger of pressure points to improve flexibility. Hot stone massage, as its name implies, involves placing smooth, warmed rocks at various points and lightly stroking the body with the warm stones.

Deep Tissue: Deep muscle massage works on the fibers of the large muscles to release tension and toxins. Deep tissue massage focuses on musculoskeletal issues, and works on the body’s inner muscles and connective fascia tissue. Myofascial release therapy manipulates the connective fascia tissue as a means of releasing inflammation. Similarly, Rolfing works on the myofascial tissue.

Energy: Acupressure involves applying pressure to stimulate meridians that correspond to organs and glands. Hoshino therapy is a form of acupressure that uses the entire hand. Reflexology manipulates points on the foot that correspond to parts of the body. Shiatsu employs rhythmic pressure on energy meridians. Chi Nei Tsang is an abdomen massage that aims to help internal organs and the body’s energy flow. Polarity therapy manipulates the body’s electromagnetic system to promote healing. Reiki involves placing hands on or above the body to alleviate pain.

Condition-Specific: Craniosacral therapy works to restore the motion of cerebrospinal fluid to boost central nervous system functioning. Lymphatic massage uses a light touch to remove blocks in the lymph system and allow cellular waste to leave the body.

Massage therapy is a powerful weapon in the pain management arsenal. The sensation of pain can be reduced simply by experiencing healing touch, but massage therapy can also address the underlying physiological issues that cause pain. Used in conjunction with other pain management techniques, massage therapy is a sure boost to pain relief.

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