The explosion of medical breakthroughs over the last 10 years has made it possible to simply pop a “pill for every ill,” a symptom perhaps of the most widespread malady of our time, the quick fix. And like pharmaceutical medications, faster solutions to our problems (often not addressing the underlying issue) are not without side effects.
The result: misuse and abuse of drugs, painkillers and antidepressants.
The alternative poses fewer risks. We know from experience that warm, humanly touch, and other forms of reassuring physical contact such as hugs, make us feel better physically and mentally. Medical science is yet to fully look into the physiology of touch, and by extension, massage, but it’s gradually acknowledging that massage therapy can be integrated into standard treatments of various medical conditions and situations.
So next time you contemplate popping a pill, consider first whether massage therapy might alleviate your condition. Talk to your doctor when in doubt.
The Massage-Mental Health Connection
Stress is inevitable in a world where there’s pressure to be “on” all the time. Psychologists tell us, however, that stress is not entirely the problem, but in part how we respond to it. We can either remove or minimize stressors, increase our coping mechanisms, or do both.
Getting regular massage is one way to cope with whatever life throws at you. While there’s still much to be desired in medical literature about the effect of massage therapy on reducing the stress hormone cortisol, the initial findings look promising and appear to be confirming what we all intuitively know: Getting massaged feels good. It’s even better that we now know the science behind it: Massage therapy decreases levels of cortisol, and increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, triggering a cascade of biochemical processes that boost your mental well-being.
Activating the Massage Benefits for Stress
When you are faced with what you perceive as stressors or emergencies, your sympathetic nervous system takes over, increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure, and constricting your blood vessels; in short, preparing you to take action. When the threat passes or when the issue is resolved, the parasympathetic nervous system takes its turn to return your system to normal. The problem occurs when you are constantly on alert mode, causing your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. Consequently, you will be at risk of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, problems with digestion, and diabetes.
Long, fluid hand massage movements, like those performed in Swedish massage, are thought to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing down your heart, dilating your blood vessels, normalizing your metabolic process, and helping you relax.
You Knead the Natural High: Massage and Endorphins
Deep tissue massage, on the other hand, has been found to boost your level of endorphins, the feel-good hormones that give you a natural high, the kind you experience after a satisfying run or workout. Endorphins also act as natural analgesic so your perception of pain is diminished. Painkillers and anti-depressants are one of the most (ab)used medications in the United States, creating a vicious cycle of higher demand for more painkillers and anti-depressants. Imagine how many lives will be much better (and how many billions of dollars saved in healthcare) if all alternative modalities are exhausted first before resorting to prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
Wake Up Your Serotonin to Ease Anxiety, Sleep Better and Boost Your Mood
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in the brain responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. Imbalance in serotonin levels can lead to various biochemical glitches, such as anxiety, panic, depression and even excessive anger.
Low levels of serotonin, whether due to the body’s insufficient quantity of serotonin receptors, lack of exposure to sunlight, or inadequate vitamin B, have been blamed for irritability, weak impulse control, and depression. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin which helps regulate the body’s internal clock and sleep-wake cycle, so not having enough of it could lead to poor sleep.
Not surprisingly, many sleeping pills and anti-depressants today come from a class of drugs known as SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These drugs prevent the reabsorption of serotonin (not other neurotransmitters) in the brain, leaving more serotonin circulating in the system.
In limited studies, massage has been documented to increase serotonin levels by as much as 30%. It’s not clear, however, whether the serotonin level was affected by the simple act of touching or a full course of massage treatments lasting several weeks.
There’s Beauty in Pain: The Many Ways Massage Can Benefit Your Body
The physical benefits of massage are better appreciated because relief often comes immediately. “Knots” in muscle tissues, for example, can be released by trigger point massage in the course of an hour-long treatment, and headaches can be relieved by rubbing the temples to open up blood vessels so there’s less pressure and increased blood circulation. As mentioned earlier, massage also triggers the production of endorphins that naturally help numb the pain.
One of the beautiful massage benefits for skin is clear complexion, as massage improves blood circulation and removes build-up of wastes and toxins from a sluggish lymphatic system. Next time you come out from a massage session, notice changes in the color and texture of your skin. You will likely leave the spa with a rejuvenated glow.
Massage therapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your blood pressure, restoring normal metabolic function, and relaxing muscle tissues. Specifically, Swedish massage, as per a systematic study conducted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, increases production of white blood cells to enable your immune system to combat viruses.
Approach Low Back Pain from Behind with Massage Therapy
Low back pain is one of the most persistent aches that many patients complain about, and one that is resistant to the usual cocktail of treatments like NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), muscle relaxants and even surgeries. The pain, of course, needs to be evaluated, to differentiate mechanical pain from discomfort caused by other diseases or advancing age.
Barring underlying medical issues, a study conducted by the Center for Health Studies at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle showed that low back pain is best approached by a course of hourly massage sessions twice a week. While the pain didn’t go away entirely, most of the participants in the study reported a perceptible decrease in the severity of pain. For the lucky few, the improvement was significant.
And it doesn’t matter what type of massage is applied, as long as the treatment is given for a period of time. (In the study, the therapy was given for 10 weeks.) Relaxation massage is most commonly taught in schools so it’s widely available compared to other modalities. This is good news for older adults as there will be more massage benefits for the elderly who might be concerned that their bones are too frail to withstand more vigorous types of massage.
Can Massage Correct Your Posture?
Years of sitting slouched at a desk, improper ergonomics, and a sedentary lifestyle are just a few of the contributing factors to poor posture. Posture affects not only the way you carry your body but also cause abnormal alignment of the spine. When the spine is not aligned, your overall ability of function is affected: Your diaphragm is not in the optimal position for breathing, you could potentially suffer from cervicogenic headaches (pain originating from the neck and radiating upward), you will likely develop pain in the pelvis, knee or ankle, and fatigue might readily set it. Your digestion will also be hindered as your stomach and other organs are compressed in the abdomen, leading to acid reflux.
Massage can relieve tightness in overworked muscles, smooth out muscle knots, and lengthen compressed muscle tissues. With aches and pains in your neck, shoulder, spine and lower back gone, standing straighter will be that much easier.