How Massage Helps Manage Chronic Pain
We often hear that massage can help manage chronic pain, but how exactly does it help?
Massage is More than a ‘Feel Good’ Therapy
Most people would agree with the statement that ‘massage feels good.’ Most people also associate massage with images of spas, facials, and the like. While there is no denying that the traditional “spa massage” is a relaxing experience, there are many other types of massage that are less well-known that can help improve your quality of life if you suffer from chronic pain.
Massage Helps Manage Chronic Pain
Several changes happen in the body during a massage that can help with pain relief, and depending on your type of pain it may be affected by one or more of these changes. The American Massage Therapy Association has put together a list of research papers done on the topic. Readers who want the real “nitty-gritty” on the matter, click here for links to scientific articles.
Massage Affects the Nervous System
Although different types of massage may produce a variety of physiological changes, depending on what symptoms are being treated (e.g. excess fluid buildup, sprained joint, knots in muscles), there is one thing that happens in every massage: stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
What in the Heck is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?
In short, our bodies have two complimentary functions of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system is what functions without us thinking about it – breathing, digesting food, etc.
When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, we are alert and active. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of our “fight of flight” response, so our senses are all heightened when it is in charge – this includes the nervous system activity that enables us to feel pain well.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated our bodies relax and we go into a state of “rest and digest.” When massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, our senses become dulled. This happens because the special chemicals (neurotransmitters) that heighten our perception take a break and other neurotransmitters that suppress our senses spring into action. As a result, we no longer sense things like pain as well.
Why Massage Helps Manage Chronic Pain
People who are in chronic pain often have difficulty switching from the sympathetic (active) nervous system to the parasympathetic (relaxed) nervous system. Doctors often prescribe medications to help this happen artificially, but these medications do not work in all people and it is possible to build up a tolerance to these meds over time, lessening their effect.
Pain medications often have negative side effects and usually should not be taken over long periods of time. Doctors are hesitant to prescribe pain medications for any significant duration because they may lead to chemical dependency and harm the liver or kidneys.
Massage is a natural way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, sending the body immediately into “rest and digest” mode. It does not involve any artificial means to relieve pain. Instead, it uses the body’s own built-in pain suppression mechanisms to bring about relief.
Massage Induces Serotonin Release Which Relieves Pain
Serotonin is another important chemical in our nervous system (neurotransmitter). It is responsible for calming us down when we are anxious and lifting our mood when we are depressed. Massage increases serotonin production, so it is very beneficial for people who suffer from anxiety or depression. The American Massage Therapy Association has put together research that you can read here for anxiety and here for depression if you want all of the details.
Increased availability of serotonin has been shown to reduce pain. This is why special drugs that make serotonin more available in the body (SSRI’s and SNRI’s) are frequently used to treat chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. Since massage has been shown to increase serotonin levels, it is very effective in providing relief for people with chronic pain.
Massage Improves Sleep to Relieve Pain
Massage helps manage chronic pain through improved sleep. (Detailed research from the American Massage Therapy Association is available here.)
It is a well-documented fact that the less sleep you get, the more sensitive you are to pain. (Article with research on that here.) In people with chronic pain syndromes this becomes a vicious cycle in which it is impossible to get good sleep because of pain, and the lack of sleep increases the perception of pain.
Massage functions as an intervention into this cycle. By helping to induce deep sleep during and after the massage, the cycle is broken and, over time, balance is restored to the body.
No matter if you have fibromyalgia, sciatica, back pain, or bone cancer, if you are suffering from chronic pain make medical massage part of your treatment plan. Medical massage therapists are trained to work with diverse medical conditions to design the right therapy for you.
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