Consider This Therapy For. Massage isn’t capable of curing any serious or life-threatening medical disorders, but it can provide welcome relief from the symptoms of anxiety, tension, depression, insomnia, and stress, as well as back pain, headache, muscle pain, and some forms of chronic pain. It’s also frequently recommended for the treatment of minor sports injuries and repetitive stress injuries, and for the enhancement of physical conditioning. Some people find that it even relieves such digestive disorders as constipation.

How the Treatments Are Done

There are dozens of specialized massage techniques in use today. However, the most widespread variation builds upon the five basic strokes of Swedish massage:
Effleurage: Slow, rhythmic, gliding strokes, usually in the direction of blood flow toward the heart, for example, from wrist to shoulder. Usually the massage therapist uses the whole hand (palm and fingers), gradually applying an increasing amount of pressure. Variations of effleurage involve strokes applied with the fingertips, heel of the hand, or knuckles.
Petrissage: Kneading, pressing, and rolling muscle groups. The massage therapist will take hold of the tissue and alternately tighten and loosen his grasp.
Friction: Steady pressure or tight circular movements across muscle fibers without moving across the skin, often used in areas around joints.
Percussion (Tapotement): Drumming hand movements on broad areas of the body, particularly the back. Techniques include beating with the side of loosely clenched fists; cupping or striking with the fingertips and heel of the hand; hacking, rapid chopping motions with the edge of the hand; and clapping, using the flattened hand to clap rapidly over fleshy areas.
Vibration and Jostling: Vibration entails rapid movements by the therapist to transmit an oscillating action to the patient; mechanical vibrators are also used for this purpose. Jostling requires rapid shaking of a muscle back and forth, usually for a brief period.
You may also encounter some specialized techniques employed for specific purposes. These include:
Neuromuscular Massage: Also known as trigger point therapy, this technique applies concentrated finger pressure to painful areas in muscles called trigger points.
Deep Tissue Massage: Slow strokes and deep finger pressure on areas of the body suffering from chronic muscle tension or areas that simply ache or feel contracted. Deep tissue massage is especially effective with tense areas such as stiff necks or sore shoulders.
Sports Massage: This rapidly expanding field, popular among both professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts, focuses on the use of massage to assist training, prevent injury, and aid healing in case of soreness or injury. It is used both before and after exercise, as well as in the treatment of sports injuries such as sprains, strains, and tendonitis.
Manual Lymph Drainage: This rhythmic pumping form of massage stimulates the movement of lymph fluid through the lymph vessels. It is used to treat lymphedema, a side effect of any surgery in which the lymph nodes are removed or of radiation administered in the area of the lymph nodes.

The length of massage sessions varies, but a full-body massage generally takes an hour.

What Treatment Hopes to Accomplish

Massage is nothing more than a systematic manual application of pressure and movement to the soft tissue of the body– the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (the membrane surrounding muscles and muscle groups). It encourages healing by promoting the flow of blood and lymph, relieving tension, stimulating nerves, and stretching and loosening muscles and connective tissue to keep them elastic.

Before physical exercise, massage helps get blood moving to assist in the warm-up. Massage after a workout has been shown to reduce the waste products (lactic and carbonic acid) that build up in muscles after exercise and cause cramping and discomfort. There is also some scientific evidence to support claims that massage enhances the immune system and aids recovery from soft tissue injuries by increasing blood circulation to injured areas. Some studies indicate that massage can even reduce blood pressure.
The healing powers of massage have been recognized since antiquity. In the 5th century BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that his colleagues should be experienced “in rubbing … for rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose, and loosen a joint that is too rigid.” Various forms of massage were also employed by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans. However, the technique as we know it today didn’t appear until the late 19th century when Per Henrik Ling, a Swedish gymnast, formulated the principles of Swedish massage.

In addition to its general health benefits, massage has shown value for a variety of special problems in a host of recent medical studies:

  • In premature infants, massage therapy was found to enhance weight gain and shorten hospital stays.

  • When given massage, babies of HIV-positive mothers achieved greater weight gain and superior performance than babies in a control group that received no massage.

  • Massage was shown to promote relaxation and alleviate pain and anxiety in hospitalized cancer patients.

  • Massage reduced anxiety and lowered stress hormone levels in children with asthma, resulting in fewer asthma attacks.

  • In a group of depressed teenage mothers, massage therapy helped relieve anxiety and depression.

  • Mothers who were massaged during labor experienced less agitation, faster delivery, and less postpartum depression than those in a control group.

  • On-site massage at a down-sizing company was found to yield significant reductions in employee anxiety.

  • After massage, a group of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome had lower anxiety and depression scores, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, than did the members of a control group.

  • Slow-stroke back massage in hospice patients was found to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. After daily massages for a month, a group of men with HIV infection had improved immune function and decreased anxiety.

Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
Generally, massage is not advised for anyone with an infectious skin disease, a rash, or an unhealed wound. It’s also wise to avoid it immediately after surgery, or if you’re prone to blood clots. Circulatory ailments such as phlebitis or varicose veins preclude the use of massage, and it should never be performed directly over bruises, inflamed or infected injuries, areas of bleeding or heavy tissue damage, or at the sites of recent fractures or sprains. Massage is not recommended for cancer patients immediately after chemotherapy or radiation therapy. While there is no evidence that it actually prompts cancer to metastasize to other parts of the body, the theoretical possibility exists. Avoid massage over any known tumor, and in any area with a recent surgical incision. Forego massage in the abdominal area for at least two hours after eating–and if you have an abdominal hernia, avoid it completely. Abdominal massage should also be strictly avoided during the first three months of pregnancy; during this period, massage of the legs and feet is also inadvisable. Indeed, it’s best to consult your obstetrician before any massage during pregnancy.

Finally, if you suffer from panic attacks or have a history of sexual abuse, you may find that hands-on therapies such as massage just aren’t right for you.

What Side Effects May Occur?

Massage can aggravate existing swelling (edema). The pressure that massage exerts on the skin can be painful for someone who has a nerve injury.

How to Choose a Therapist

It’s important to make sure your therapist is properly qualified. The best evidence of this is membership in the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). Membership means that the therapist has graduated from a training program approved by the Commission on Massage Training Accreditation/Approval, holds a state license that meets AMTA certification standards, has passed an AMTA membership examination, or has passed the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. Licensing of massage therapists is now required in 25 states, and an increasing number of states are adopting the National Certification Exam. A national list of trained massage therapists is available from the AMTA. You can also check with a local school of massage for the names of qualified nearby therapists.

When Should Treatment Stop?

While the pressure of some massage techniques may cause momentary discomfort, pain should not persist throughout the session. If it continues, stop the treatment immediately.

See a Conventional Doctor If…

If your symptoms fail to improve–or get worse–see your doctor. Ongoing consultation with a physician is a good idea in any event.

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