(This multi-part article is reposted from my work at Everything2. There’s more to know and that will be coming in the next weeks!)
Touch is more than the physical sense of reaching with your hand and coming into contact with an object or person. Touch is also communication. Touch is association. Touch is the sense of belonging or connectedness within a society. — Denny Johnson, from Touch Starvation
About eight years ago, I injured my lower back. I was unable to stand up straight without a great deal of pain and walking was only accomplished with a cane. At 35 years old, I felt like a broken-down old man. After he was certain that the discs in my spine were intact, my physician recommended stretching and massage therapy. Two intensive deep tissue massage sessions later, the pain was nearly gone and my back seemed to work better than it had before the accident.
Getting a massage can be an astonishing experience. Even to the person who has enjoyed hundreds of them, there is a certain “wow” factor as your body remembers just how amazing a good massage feels.
The benefits of receiving massage are not only physiological but also psychological and emotional as well. Massage therapy loosens tight muscles, improves circulation, removes stress, eliminates kinks and trigger points in muscles and increases overall range of motion and flexibility. It also improves mood, relaxes and calms the individual and as a result may attenuate such conditions as depression, grief, anxiety and the like.
The general advantages of having stress levels lowered and the muscles tuned up are pretty easy to see. After a massage, you will feel better, and thus walk with better posture, sit more comfortably and have fewer generalized aches and pains. These effects may last for several weeks! Massage therapy can be very beneficial for persons who suffer from chronic conditions which cause muscular discomfort, including fibromyalgia, writer’s cramp, tennis elbow, plantar fasciitis, and osteoarthritis. Additionally, massage reduces fluid buildup in tissues (such as puffy ankles or the swelling associated with exercise) and can improve blood flow to (and from) various areas. There is some evidence that massage on the abdomen may aid digestion and elimination and overall massage may help remove toxins (such as the metabolic byproducts of hormones, salts, and creatinine) from tissues, speeding them back into the blood stream for elimination from the body.
There is a substantial body of evidence to support the claim that massage is very effective at stimulating the immune system. As a result, many care givers are recommending massage for patients with depressed immune systems, either from prolonged illness or from stress, lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition or immune-compromising sicknesses.
Massage excels at changing the client’s mood for the better. Massage therapy is frequently recommended by physicians, psychologists and therapists for patients who have are suffering from affective disorders such as SAD and postpartum depression. Massage can be soothing or invigorating, and as such it can also be very effective for anyone who is feeling stressed, lacking in energy or feeling ‘down in the dumps. A number of clinical studies have also shown that massage can be very useful in combating insomnia, ADD and ADHD, as well as PMS.
Massage works its magic in a number of ways. The action of stroking and kneading muscle tissue and surrounding connective tissue unbinds tight spots, works out immobile portions and enhances circulation of blood and lymph in the area. Simply rubbing an area can have a demonstrable analgesic effect (which is likely why one might rub an elbow after smacking it on a table, for example).
Also, it is hard to overstate the importance of touch. Simply touching another person, and being touched by them, can have a soothing and calming effect on our emotional and mental states. These factors add up to a very pleasant and healthy experience.
The prospective massage client should beware: there are a few (very few, fortunately) irresponsible (or grossly misinformed) massage therapists who will make unsupported claims about the efficacy of massage therapy. Among other things, some may claim that massage therapy may reduce the likelihood of cancer, reverse the effects of leukemia or of autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus), cure asthma or many other (equally improbable) things. Such claims have not been substantiated by research. The best defense against such claims is education. Massage magazine (to name only one) has a terrific on-line library of medical research related to massage and touch therapy. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it very likely is!
Since my accident, I have gone on to make a career of massage therapy—trying to give back as good as I got or some noble sounding thing like that. I have heard dozens of testimonials like my own: people whose constant headaches made life miserable, a woman who swears massage therapy saved her from surgery, a 75-year old man who credits his light gait and excellent posture to massage therapy, and many others.
One of the best comparisons I’ve heard is this: having a massage is a lot like getting a good night of sleep; you may not realize that you needed it, but once you get it, the difference is amazing.
The information in this article comes first-hand from my own professional experience (and that of many colleagues). Scientific and medical information has been gathered from literally hundreds of research synopses, mostly published in the magazine Massage.
Additionally, I referred to many testimonials from my clients and my own massage school notes. Massage therapy is not a substitute for the care of a physician, psychologist or therapist.