The Affect Of Massage Therapy And Patient Outcome

What is massage therapy?

Massage therapy is the hands-on manipulation of the soft tissues in the body.  Soft tissue is found throughout our body, and is comprised of muscle, tendons, ligaments, fascia, nerves, fat tissue, joints and blood vessels.  Massage techniques are applied with the hands, elbows, forearms, and sometimes devices.  These specific techniques are applied with the intent to optimize our health, reduce muscle tension, decrease pain, aid in relief from chronic pain, improve muscle injuries, reduce stress and depression, increase relaxation, rehabilitate sports injuries, and enhance your overall sense of emotional and physical well-being.   

When a person is seeking Massage Therapy, most people complain about stiffness, soreness, injuries and stress in their life. How does Massage Therapy affect our bodies in a positive way, long term?

When our body is under stress, whether it be from work, school or anxiety, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or, as many of you have heard it being called, our "Fight-or-Flight Response" activates. The SNS sends out impulses to smooth muscle and our adrenal glands and tells our adrenal gland to release epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine and cortisol (stress hormone) into the blood stream. Adrenaline and cortisol are considered stress hormones, and once released into the body, they can cause increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased cholesterol, weight gain, frequent headaches, poor sleep quality and suppress the immune system, just to name a few. Picture being chased by a bear, our SNS ("fight-or-flight" response) immediately fires, and our bodies take action. Our blood is redirected to areas of our body where it is needed most, to either fight or flee from that bear. For example, our heart pumps the oxygen rich blood to our leg and arm muscles, our eyes, and our brain. During this time, the blood isn’t really being pumped to our stomachs for digestion, because digesting food is not considered important during this fight- or -flight response.

So how does this all relate to Massage Therapy? Massage Therapy helps to decrease our sympathetic nervous system firing, and shift us into a parasympathetic state. Regular massage therapy has been known to reduce those "stress hormones" (adrenaline, cortisol) and increase our "feel good" or "happy" hormones including, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin. During massage, lots of endorphins are released into the bloodstream and endorphins have been known to reduce pain, enhance the immune system, elevate our mood, lower blood pressure, promote a deeper more restful sleep and reduce stress and anxiety.

Among decreasing our stress and anxiety levels, massage therapy is also known to increase circulation, reduce inflammation, release tension and promote relaxation throughout the entire body. Massage therapy can also treat a wide variety of conditions, such as headaches and migraines, strains/sprains, repetitive strain injuries (rotator cuff and carpal tunnel), whiplash, sciatica, and chronic pain.

When we have injuries in our body, such as muscle strains or sprains, increasing circulation to the area will help speed up the recovery time.  During a massage, specific techniques bring oxygen rich blood and nutrients to the muscle tissue, and flushing out lactic acid and carbonic acid.  Lactic acid and carbonic acid are waste products that build up in our muscles after we exercise.  By flushing these acids out, and bringing fresh oxygen into our muscles, this will help speed up the healing time. 

Reduced muscle flexibility can also lead to many injuries.  Muscle flexibility can become increasingly challenging especially after an injury.  We can also have decreased muscle flexibility from scar tissue build up, tight fascia (connective tissue), poor posture, and repetitive strain injuries, such as sitting at a desk all day.   Our muscles become stiff and rigid and not pliable anymore, and this can lead to injuries very easily, even from the simplest daily activities.  Scar tissue can then build up, and our connective tissue becomes disrupted, therefore it heals and binds together in a mismatched way, reducing flexibility and creating tension. Massage can improve muscle flexibility and increase the range of motion of a Joint , so that we can continue our daily activities and exercise with a lower likelihood of an injury occurring.  

We have heard a lot of different ways massage therapy is beneficial, is there any possible side affects of massage therapy?  The answer is, yes.  During a deep tissue massage, the muscle tissues are being broken down creating small micro tears in the tissues.  Scar tissue and fascia are also being broken down in order for it to realign properly and more functionally.  This all sounds counter productive, but is a necessity in order to regain muscle flexibility.  The deep pressure may cause some bruising, tenderness and achiness, but usually only lasts for a couple of days.  Most patients feel the tenderness, but also feel a great relief of pain and stiffness.  Headaches post treatment can occur as well, sometimes due to a release of so many tight muscles in the neck and shoulders, or sometimes from the head resting in an awkward position during the treatment.  Some clients have also experienced nausea during treatment.  However, neither usually last very long, and drinking plenty of water, light stretches and rest after your treatment usually helps.  

Hoping a stiff neck, sore back, or headaches you might be experiencing will just go away on their own? They might, but they also might be getting worse as time goes on.  Are your headaches becoming more frequent, more intense, lasting longer?  Are your stress levels through the roof, your lower back so sore you can barely stand up?  As a Registered Massage Therapist for 15 years, I can tell you first hand, there are no benefits in waiting to see if the issues will just resolve themselves.  Get to the root of the cause and have an experienced massage therapist address the problem.  If you haven’t already done so, seek out an RMT in your area, your body, mind and soul will thank you for it!