Massage: More Than Stress Reduction
Whenever I want to give someone a gift that provokes a strong positive reaction, I give them a gift certificate for a massage. I watch them as they open the envelope. When they find the certificate enclosed, they often roll their shoulders, stretch their backs and ooh and aah with pleased anticipation. It is the perfect gift for most people.
Many of us perceive massage as a "feel good" therapy to diffuse stress and get some the aches and pains worked out of our muscles. But the benefits of massage go beyond stress reduction and pain relief. Massage affects the body as a whole in various ways.
The rhythmically applied manual pressure and movement used in massage can dramatically increase the rate of blood flow. Increased blood flow means greater tissue oxygenation and delivery of nutrients to cells. Massage also stimulates nerve receptors causing the blood vessels to expand, which facilitates blood flow and facilitates the work of the heart. The oxygen capacity of the blood can increase 10-15% after massage.
This same type of pressure also stimulates the flow of lymph, a milky white fluid which carries impurities and waste away from the tissues. Lymph is not pumped by the heart to circulate as the blood does, so its movement depends largely on the squeezing effect of muscle contractions. Inactive people fail to stimulate lymph flow and develop what is called "auto-intoxication," a build up of waste in the body, which can, over time, lead to chronic illnesses.
Massage can help loosen contracted, shortened muscles and can stimulate weak, flaccid muscles. This muscle "balancing" can help posture and promote more efficient movement. Massage speeds recovery from the fatigue that occurs after exercise. With regular massages, an athlete can do longer periods of exercise and training, which in the long run strengthens muscles and improves conditioning. Massage also provides a gentle stretching action to both the muscles and connective tissues that surround and support the muscles and many other parts of the body, thus enhancing flexibility.
Massage increases the body's production of digestive enzymes, saliva, and urine. There is also increased excretion of nitrogen, inorganic phosphorus, and sodium chloride (salt). This suggests that the metabolic rate (the utilization of absorbed material by the body's cells) increases.
Massage balances the nervous system by soothing or stimulating it, depending on which effect is needed by the individual at the time of the massage.
Massage enhances skin condition by improving the function of the oil and sweat glands which keep the skin lubricated, clean and cooled. Tough, inflexible skin can become softer and more supple after a series of massages.
Massage also aids recovery from soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains by improving circulation in the injured areas.
Massage therapists and other body workers know that tissues have memories, which means that we store emotions in various parts of the body. It is not unusual for clients to experience emotional releases as a massage therapist works to diffuse some of the life trauma stored in various muscles. These releases can lead to profound changes in a client's experience of life.
No article on the benefits of massage is complete without mentioning its effect on stress. Stress causes the release of hormones that create vasoconstriction, leading to reduced circulation. Affected by stress, the heart works harder, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and digestion slows. Nearly every body process is degraded. Studies performed over the years show how stress factors can cause migraines, hypertension, depression, peptic ulcers and many degenerative diseases. Some researchers have estimated that up to 80% of disease is stress related.
Hawaii has licensed massage practitioners since 1947. To apply for a license to practice in Hawaii, a massage therapist must undergo a rigorous education, including several hundred hours in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, practical training and apprenticeship and then must pass an exam.
The best way to find a massage therapist that may address your therapeutic needs is to get a referral from a friend or a health professional who is knowledgeable about forms of complementary and alternative health care.
A massage therapy session is generally about an hour in length. Clients are usually asked to remove as much clothing as one is comfortable with and lie down on a padded massage table. To respect personal privacy and provide adequate warmth, the client is covered or draped with a sheet or towel so that only the part of the body being worked on is exposed at any given time.
Whether or not you would expect to talk during a session depends on your need at the time. Some clients need to talk. Some need silence. Massage therapists will usually try to accommodate what the client needs. However, sometimes talking detracts from entering a state of relaxation or experiencing the physical or nonverbal dimensions of the massage. In any case, feel comfortable giving feedback about your needs and what you like or do not like during the session. Good communication enhances the massage session.
The massage therapist will likely use a high quality oil or lotion, but if you have an allergic response you should let the massage therapist know. Some massage therapists offer to play music during a session, others may feel it is distracting. It is best not to have eaten just before a session.
In the coming months, this column will discuss some of the different types of massage therapy available as well as present short introductions to some of the talented therapists who are practicing on this blessed "healing island."
American Massage Therapy Association, 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201, 847-864-0123.