Massage is a large topic that means different things to different people. I toyed with the idea of not using the word “massage” in my business title because each individual will have their own preconception of what it might mean. There are so many “types” of massage today that this is hardly surprising. Deep tissue, sports, remedial, Swedish, Thai, Indian head, seated and shiatsu are a few of the types of massage we will almost all have heard of. There are of course, lots more. According to the internet definitions I looked up, the term itself means rubbing or kneading the body with the hands. This is at odds with my own training and indeed that of a large amount of massage therapists. A lot of us like to use our elbows and forearms, for example. When used sensitively and in the right situation they can be the best tools. Another quick look on the internet tells me that the word “massage” may have its roots in Arabic, whereas the word that we recognise today is from French. The first depictions of what looks like massage are from BC2330.
So, what does this tell us so far? Well, not much really. Other than that it is an old term and ancient practice. I would also say that whilst the art itself may have developed, I would put money on the basic premise not having changed all that much, if at all. When it comes to techniques and types of massage, the more I learn and practice the more I think these things are just convenient ways of labelling and packaging different methods of approaching working with the body’s soft tissues so as to pass them on and refer to them, as well as to help have a specific approach. I would say it does not matter all that much what formally recognised technique a person may or may not use. Don’t get me wrong, some techniques are really good and others kind of OK. My point is that it is often the skill of the person doing the technique that is the important bit. In fact, two of the better massages I have personally had have been done by people without formal training in it. This is not to say that it is not worth getting training if you intend to earn money from massage. One would be doing potential clients and oneself a disservice if one were to skip formal training. What I am trying to say is that the art and getting the feel for it is more important than knowing the newest or most popular techniques.
So, what does massage actually do? Well, decent research is not always easy to find in the land of massage but there is some. Reducing pain, muscle tension and stress are top of the list of effective uses. That is a pretty good start as that small list covers a wide range of physical and emotional issues. Another positive with massage is the skin to skin contact that takes place. Skin to skin contact is rated as very important in terms of emotional well-being. When my twins was born it was my job to get my son to relax and sleep. I used to tuck him into my shirt and walk around the hospital and later the house. It worked very well indeed. OK, he was a newborn but it is reported that dopamine and serotonin are released during skin to skin contact. This could be why studies have found massage to be so favourable when it comes to helping with depression and anxiety.
Reducing muscular tension is where I live when it comes to massage and a massage based approach. There are various theories that say why massage does this. Not all such theories hold water and some get dis-proven over time. To me though, that is less important than the question ‘does it work?’ Does massage actually reduce muscular tension? I would say yes it does. At the time of writing I am about to complete my eleventh year of practice as a remedial massage therapist. Having lost count a long time ago of the number of people I have treated, there is no doubt in my mind that massage can indeed reduce muscular tension. Current thinking seems to be that it is all to do with the nervous system. I like this idea because it is after all the nervous system that controls the muscles. To me, the idea of using the correct degree of pressure on a tense muscle in order to encourage the nervous system to allow it to release, makes a lot of sense. This might also explain why heavy massage on reactive and spasmodic muscles can make things worse sometimes, and why going gently and at a depth and rate of movement that makes the muscles relax can encourage things to improve.
As an offshoot of massage, there are a number of techniques that can be done as part of a massage based treatment which can further assist in reducing muscular tension. One of my favourites is muscle energy technique, or MET to those in the business. It basically revolves around using muscular tension to assist in improving muscular extensibility. There are a number of forms of MET and they all differ in their approaches but a basic and very effective form would be to tense a tense muscle and then stretch it. There is more to it than that but this is a basic way of explaining the principal. Such techniques can be used to target either muscle groups or specific muscles. This leads me on to one of the most enabling uses of massage. As muscles create movement of joints, they can also prevent proper joint function when they become tense. So, in a very real way, reducing muscular tension can assist in getting problematic joints to move more easily.
Between reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and reducing muscular tension as well as assisting joints to move more easily, we probably have covered why massage can be so useful for reducing pain. Tight joints tend to be accompanied by pain, as do tense muscles. Stress, anxiety and depression also have a very real effect on pain. Pain is so personal to each individual and is experienced differently from person to person. When mood drops, pain raises and when pain diminishes, mood improves. It is a see-saw effect with mood on one end and pain on the other. One having the opposite effect on the other. Massage seems to be able to approach pain both directly and indirectly.
The reasons presented could very well explain why massage has always been so popular and sought after when it comes to pain relief, mood improvement, relaxation and just for people to feel better in general.
The Importance of Keeping Up with Exercises
When it comes to exercises for improving pain, the actual gains made from maintaining a good regimen will become apparent as you continue with it. If it is sporadic or only paid lip service to, the chances are that you will throw it out as a bad job. The danger here is that you may not return to it, not reach your goal, and become despondent. This in itself can add to the feeling of pain and malady. All too often I have clients who hold themselves back from doing the things that help them improve their situation. The beliefs that cause this are vast and varied, but really not helpful. It is easy to end up believing we are weak. You are not weak. It is OK to feel weak but in my clinical experience, people are stronger than they think, and people who see themselves as weak are much stronger than they believe themselves to be.
There are a whole host of legitimate different ways to decrease pain and improve movement. If you read articles online they will often have strong headlines such as “The Top Five Ways of Eliminating Back Pain!” or “Why Stretching Doesn’t Work.” Having read various articles with such headlines I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of them fall short of what the headline promises. What I am getting at is that whilst there is generally still merit in perusing the articles and reading between the lines to take the useful parts, such headlines run the risk of fooling readers into thinking they have tried the best ways of dealing with their issues, putting them off something that may be working or, at worse, misleading people. To add to this, I have also often heard people talking about and advertising various forms of exercise and therapy in a similar way. My conclusion here is similar to my conclusion on the articles. There is merit in most forms of exercise and therapy. This is a big subject so won’t get into it here but I would like to repeat that if something is not working, change it.
What is important is to do something. Sometimes stretching is not the best thing to try and sometimes it is. Sometimes specific exercises for back pain are best. Sometimes general exercise is best. If what you are doing doesn’t help, do something else. Either find out how to improve what you are doing or try something different. Generally speaking, if you are enjoying it, modify it. If you don’t enjoy it, try something else. This is where professional guidance comes in. If you are struggling to improve your situation then it is worth seeing someone who can point you in the right direction.
Generally speaking, and depending on the reason for your pain, it is best to try activities such as walking, running, cycling or swimming as a first resort. Like everything else, they each have their strengths and weaknesses but the good thing about these forms of exercise is that they are all accessible, low cost and safe for almost everyone. It has also been shown in various studies that doing exercise that might not even be aimed at helping with a particular issue can help with pain management. The important thing to remember is that you should ideally enjoy the exercise. This will keep you enthused, which will in turn help you to maintain it.
One of the things that I have noticed in the clinic is that (particularly with stretching) people can often spend just a short time on exercises, and maybe only try it a few times before losing interest because they are making no progress. If you don’t enjoy it or have not got the willpower it can be a struggle. The important point here is that if a person wants to make improvement then they need to commit. Willpower can be enough, but frequently enjoyment is best. The idea that we need to feel pain or just not enjoy physical activity to be getting the best out of it is one of the most unhelpful attitudes that I have come across as a professional therapist. It can help to accept that some discomfort or pain may be needed at times, but in most cases it is simply untrue to say that if it doesn’t hurt it is not working. Sometimes just gritting your teeth and pushing through is necessary but it is often not the best way. We are also allowed to have fun and feel good in order to help ourselves. In fact, it is preferable wherever possible. If you are an Olympic swimmer you need to be able to deal with the pain of training and competing. If you have a bad back you may have to go through pain in order to improve, but in the vast majority of cases you don’t.
Having said all of this, there is a time for doing specific exercises and having a particular type of therapy. I don’t want to give the reader the impression that I consider specialist knowledge redundant. I really don’t otherwise I would not be doing the job I do! There is nothing wrong with seeking professional advice earlier on. It can help you get going in the right direction sooner and is good for knowing you aren’t doing anything wrong. It can also help with discovering if there is something that needs investigation. It is up to each individual to reach their own educated conclusion on which route to take.
What I am trying to lay out in this post is that the key to feeling less pain and to get more out of life may lie in doing something simple.
So, the take-home from this is:
- you very probably don’t need to cause yourself pain to improve
- it is OK or even advisable for you to enjoy the process of helping yourself feel better
- you can start with general exercise to reduce pain in specific areas
- if what you are doing isn’t working, try something else
- you should commit if you want to improve
- get into a good routine
- if you are still struggling, seek help from a professional
- you are strong, even if you don’t feel it
- Yes, you are!