Imagine that a person goes to visit a massage therapist once a week, like clockwork, for years. This person is not an athlete, and they haven’t won a lifetime supply of free
massage sessions. They are, as far as one can tell, a perfectly ordinary person.
Why, then, this seeming indulgence? Perhaps because it is not an indulgence at all, but a medical necessity.
This might perhaps be surprising, but more and more people are turning to massage therapy to deal with chronic pain. In much the same way that an ordinary person might see a practitioner of massage to work out some tension in the neck, sufferers of chronic pain syndromes can benefit from regular intervention in the form of medical massage.
Living With Chronic Pain
It can be difficult for a person without a chronic condition to imagine, but try to envision a life of constant pain. Take a day where you woke up with a stiff neck or a Charlie-horse, or were recovering from some injury or strenuous activity and felt it all over your body. Now imagine that every day is like that.
Imagine that constant pain makes sleep difficult, and that your options are usually limited to medication – which can be habit forming – or opting to “grin and bear it,” which will leave you tired and even less able to cope with the insistent aches and pains.
Add a healthy dose of depression and anxiety, and you’re getting a glimpse of life with chronic pain, particularly that suffered by patients with illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic myofascial pain syndrome (CMPS), and varying types of arthritis. Does this sound familiar to you?
While the root causes of many chronic pain disorders are regrettably unclear, researchers and medical professionals are gaining insights into the ways that massage therapy can have a direct positive impact on the quality of life of individuals struggling with those disorders.
Let’s take a moment to look at fibromyalgia and CMPS, as they are well understood and common pain syndromes. Symptoms can (and often do) include headaches, migraines, numbness, joint stiffness, back pain, neck pain, exhaustion, deep aching trigger points, and nerve tingling.
A side effect that often goes untreated in chronic pain disorders is stress, anxiety, and depression. Patients often report feeling as if their condition has trapped them in a rut, unable to live their life to the fullest. They feel they cannot make plans with friends or family, because their condition might flare up and prevent them. They worry about job performance, or taking too many sick days. They feel they are letting those around them down every time their pain stops them from participating in something.
These stressors only compound the problem, because when we are stressed, our bodies deal poorly with our existing pain. Furthermore, we sleep less, and our bodies produce less serotonin, meaning we feel our pains more. That, in turn, raises our anxiety and further worsens our mood. It’s a vicious cycle, and many patients have reported feeling helpless against it.
When treating chronic pain, it is crucial to consider more than the base symptoms. It is important to adopt a more thorough approach, and to consider alternative treatment modalities when those modalities have proven themselves.
In the case of massage therapy, the benefits are very well documented. In this article, we will attest to some of them, and how they can impact patients suffering from any number of chronic pain disorders.
Medical Massage Therapy Can Help Manage Pain
First, we will begin with a brief discussion on medical massage. Massage therapy is, loosely defined, palpitation, and treatment through touch and pressure. As such, it is a therapeutic treatment, what is often considered a complementary medicine – though it’s use as the primary or sole treatment is growing.
Medical massage is often defined further, to specify massage that is prescribed or
deemed medically necessary. It isn’t one specific treatment method, but many advanced techniques, and can include neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release, therapeutic stretching, trigger point therapy, and lymphatic drainage, among other modalities.
Medical Massage can be applied by licensed massage therapists, or even by mechanical devices, and it can be applied locally or to the entire body. As a blanket term, massage therapy can cover many types of treatments, from Shiatsu to Swedish, hot stone to reflexology and craniosacral therapy.
As research studies grow in number, the consistency and availability of empirical data supporting the use of medical massage likewise grows. Many studies have focused on single conditions – fibromyalgia and arthritis, for instance, have been studied at length – but emerging data shows clearly that medical massage can have measurable positive impacts on sufferers of nearly any chronic pain condition. The important thing is establishing a meaningful partnership between patient and care provider to determine precisely how best to apply the therapy.
Medical massage is not the same as massage at a spa. It requires the practitioner to have a deeper understanding of the patient needs, as well as specific training on how to apply therapeutic touch to provide pain relief. It requires a higher level of specialized training – and a medical massage practitioner will have additional education to ensure their competency.
To that end, medical massage is extremely goal-oriented and focused on specific outcomes. Where a massage for the purpose of relaxation has only comfort as the end goal, medical massage focuses on achieving an outcome that will be defined by practitioners and patients.
The medical community has grown to accept medical massage therapy, with upwards of 70% of hospitals offering this therapy. The reason for this growing partnership between conventional medicine and medical massage therapy is quite simple: it works.
As mentioned above, myriad techniques exist to apply the therapy. Depending on the specific nature of the pain being treated, light or deep touch may be involved. It might involve clothed chair massage of the neck and shoulders, or it might involve a patient lying unclothed beneath a sheet while the therapist addresses pain triggers across their entire body. Sessions could last five minutes or ninety minutes. Sometimes, the targets are muscular. Sometimes, the target is based on the medical massage therapist’s understanding of your nervous and skeletal systems, as well.
Essentially, however, we are discussing therapeutic touch and pressured movement on a patient’s body. Whether the therapist uses their hands, elbows, and so on, or utilizes a massage device, the motions will be functionally the same.
And while nearly all patients will agree that they enjoy the experience, where, according to science, are the real benefits?
First, medical massage is shown to reduce cortisol levels and regulate the body’s nervous
system, which will have a positive effect on stress levels. The impact of that will vary from patient to patient, but the connection between anxiety, stress, depression, and pain is well attested in the medical community.
Additionally, medical massage therapy has been shown to affect the body’s production of both cytokines and mitochondria. Cytokines are proteins that contribute to inflammation, a chief antagonist in many chronic pain cases. Medical massage therapy may reduce the body’s production of cytokines. It may also increase the body’s production of mitochondria, which aid in self-repair at the cellular level. In short, medical massage therapy has been shown to promote the body’s self-care abilities at the deepest level.
Of course, it has also been shown repeatedly that medical massage therapy helps your body produce and release serotonin, which directly impacts mood and anxiety, and helps your body achieve deeper and more restful sleep. Regular and judicious application of medical massage therapy can lead to patients with a more harmonious circadian rhythm and a deeper, more effective sleep cycle.
Who Medical Massage Helps
Until recently, it was mostly people with idiopathic pain seeking relief through massage. Occupational or lifestyle-based pain in the lower back, neck, or shoulders was very common – the kinds of things one can associate with sitting at desks, sleeping on your side, or wearing the wrong shoes.
However, as this article has attested, chronic pain sufferers are finding relief at the medical massage therapist, as well. Medical massage therapists are seeing more and more clients who suffer from disparate chronic conditions. A few examples might include:
1 - Anxiety and Depression
This article has already explained how anxiety and depression add to the discomfort of chronic pain sufferers. Because medical massage therapy can impact mood, it can benefit the anxious and depressed, whether or not they have bodily aches and pains about which to complain.
2 - Arthritis
Arthritis is a very common cause of chronic pain, especially in the elderly. Medical massage therapists, therefore, are of necessity trained in using therapeutic touch to ease sore muscles and joints that have been compromised by the condition. Regular use of medical massage therapy by a licensed therapist at an office or treatment center has been shown to lead to improvements in pain levels, stress levels, range of motion, grip strength, and overall joint function, allowing patients access to a higher quality of life without resorting to pharmaceutical intervention.
3 - Fibromyalgia, CMPS, Temporomandibular joint disorders,
Pain is a way of life for many people living with the above conditions. All of these conditions, however, have patients who attest that they have found relief through medical massage.
In the case of Crohn’s disease, it is important to tell your medical massage therapist about your condition, as medical massage techniques which directly address the abdomen should be avoided. Crohn’s disease patients, however, and in particular small bowel Crohn’s disease patients, have found that the stress relief inherent in a professional medical massage lowers the severity and regularity of flare-ups.
For patients suffering from fibromyalgia and CMPS, patients have reported a lessening of their symptoms, an increase in their range of motion, and more.
4 - Additional pain-causing conditions including:
Headache and migraine
Medical Massage therapy, applied by a professional, has many benefits. It lowers stress hormones, boosts serotonin levels, and improves sleep. It has been shown to improve white blood cell count, which can impact the body’s immune response and promote health, and it decreases inflammatory proteins, as well.
While researchers continue to study the mechanisms by which medical massage therapy helps patients in an effort to better understand them, it can be said with certainty that medical massage therapy helps patients feel better.
That, one must hope, is enough.
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