Whether it is your lifestyle or a past injury, you are bound to experience the unpleasant physical sensation called "pain". Depending on the causes, you can heal some pains by taking painkillers or applying some pain relief creams.
However, in some cases, the pain can persist despite the drugs and medicines, in which case you need other alternatives like massage therapy.
The term "massage therapy" might bring in mind a picture of ourselves relaxing at a spa in some luxurious setting, and there is nothing wrong about it. However, massage therapy is more than a luxury getaway, as it has therapeutic value in treating injuries, reducing stress and relieving pain.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines massage therapy as "the manipulation of the muscles and other soft tissues of the body (as by stroking, kneading, or rubbing with one or both hands or an instrument) by a massage therapist for therapeutic purposes (as to relieve pain, promote healing, or improve physical functioning)."
Massage therapy is relatively a new concept in the western world but is gaining traction for its health benefits. In the US, the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) continues to advocate "to enhance the reputation and acceptance of massage therapy" and "to increase the statutes of massage therapists within healthcare".
In the UK, in consultation with your GP, you could access some massage therapies on the NHS as a complementary treatment for pain management, like reflexology, reiki, and manual lymph drainage.
Massage therapy for pain relief
Pain is a powerful tool that our body uses to communicate underlying potential tissue damage happening inside us. Regardless of the cause massage therapy,t, there are different types of massage therapies that help alleviate pain, like Swedish massage, deep tissue massage, sports massage, and many others. Whether your pain is acute or chronic, you can consult with your massage therapist for individual assessment and treatment.
Massage techniques for pain relief
There are different massage therapies available for pain relief varying in techniques, but based on one common concept, that of touch. Let us now look at some techniques used in popular massage therapies.
The technique refers to long, stroking gliding movement using the palm or fingers. It helps in relaxation while improving blood circulation and enabling lymphatic drainage of toxins from the body. Swedish massage uses this technique along with others like petrissage: the squeezing, rolling, or kneading; friction: deep, circular movements; and tapotement: a short, alternating tap done with cupped hands, fingers, or the edge of the hand. Anyone starting their massage treatment can begin with Swedish therapy, as it uses light friction techniques to help relieve muscle tensions and aches.
This technique uses gentle pressure and slow strokes along the myofascial tissue, a connective tissue that surrounds every muscle throughout the body. Deep tissue massage incorporates this technique to apply pressure using fingertips, knuckles, hands, elbows, and forearms. It locates the muscle "knots" or the fascia constrictions that cause pain, breaks them down and realigns the tissue.
Adelaida María Castro-Sánchez et al. performed a randomized controlled clinical trial on 75 fibromyalgia patients for 20 weeks, which showed improved pain and overall quality of life in patients who received myofascial release therapy.
This technique involves applying varying levels of pressure and strokes by using a finger or thumb on the areas where the muscle has cramped. This technique is also called trigger point therapy. The trigger point refers to the painful neuromuscular point that feels like a swelling that gets eased due to the pressure applied.
This therapy can relieve muscular spasms, enhance muscle healing and also improve muscle flexibility. It may be painful in the beginning, and you may also experience soreness after the massage. However, you will feel better after a day as the soreness, and the pain will fade away.
There are other massage therapies like reflexology where pressure is applied in the areas of your feet which in turn relaxes the corresponding area of your body; and sports massage that targets athletes to help them in pain management before, during and after their game.
How do massage therapists help relieve pain?
Massage therapists are trained and skilled to provide appropriate massages that can relieve your pain. A licensed/ certified massage therapist understands human physiology and autonomy and can help treat your pain symptoms.
Reviewing the role of a massage therapist, Dr Sedergreen in his article writes that the therapist is "expected to take a complete medical history, to perform a methodical assessment of the area to be treated, to ascertain whether there are any contraindications to the treatment (there may well be), and to formulate a treatment plan."
Bonus vagus nerve
Another advantage of massage therapy is the vagus nerve's stimulation, which is responsible for maintaining metabolic homeostasis. Tiffany Field's article mentions how the touch and pressure involved in a massage therapy stimulate the vagus nerve "in turn enhancing vagal activity and reducing cortisol levels". The decrease in cortisol levels directly impacts reduction in pain levels.
Relieving muscle tightness with massage
When you experience muscle tightness due to hard physical labour or sports injury, massage therapy can help relieve it. Muscle tightness occurs when lactic acid accumulates in the muscle because of restricted blood and lymph circulation.
The varying strokes used in a massage stimulate blood circulation, helping to flush out the toxins accumulated in the muscles, thereby relieving muscle tightness.
How does increasing blood flow help?
The increase in blood flow facilitates the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients into the bloodstream and muscle cells. The newly oxygenated blood replaces the waste and toxins by flushing them out and healing the tissue damages.
The relationship between chronic pain & massage therapy
Any pain that lasts for 3 to 6 months or more is called chronic pain, and regardless of the underlying cause, it affects a person's overall functioning. Pain-relieving medicines can alleviate chronic pain for a limited time but may cause other side effects.
Alongside medication, doctors now recommend therapeutic massage to relieve long term pain syndromes. Massage can relieve pain while producing a relaxing and rejuvenating result without the side effects of a drug.
How can massage reduce pain?
Massage can reduce pain by relaxing muscle tissues and relieving painful contractions. Massage also increases serotonin and dopamine levels, and these chemicals massage the stress associated with pain,, thereby reducing it.
Is massage good for chronic pain?
Yes, massage is good and beneficial for chronic pain. Chronic pain is associated with damaged nerves as a result of prior physical injury. Massage can decompress muscle tension, increase blood circulation, improve overall cellular health, and help relax the muscle tissues.
Which massage is good for body pain?
A full-body Swedish massage can be good for body pain. This is a gentler form of massage which combines various strokes like gliding, squeezing, kneading and rhythmic tapping, which can be a good choice to relieve overall body pain.
Which is the best massage for back pain?
Therapeutic massages using Swedish, deep-tissue, neuromuscular, and trigger and pressure point techniques are beneficial for back pain. A study conducted by Cherkin et al. concluded that "therapeutic massage was effective for persistent low back pain" with long-lasting benefits.