Chapter 6 : Massage for pain relief

There are apparently over 80 different styles of massage and body therapy, many of which have been developed by individual practitioners who have taken the original massage idea and developed it as a result of their practical experiences.

Furthermore, there are many associated practices like reflexology and shiatsu which are broadly associated but not entirely synonymous with massage that some people sometimes confuse with massage.

The basic concept of massage as a pain relief strategy is that rubbing and massaging various different points of your body confuses or ‘side-tracks’ your ability to register pain according to what is known as the ‘gate control theory’.

This theory is based upon the concept that pain impulses travel from various different parts of your body through the central nervous system and your spinal column to the brain. It is only when these pain signals arrive in your brain that you register pain although of course, it is a matter of a very small number of nanoseconds between the stimuli happening at some place or point on your body and your brain registering pain.

The ‘gate control theory’ explanation of why massage works as a pain relief strategy is based on the idea that your body only has the ability to send a certain number of signals to your brain at any one time, and if certain signals do not reach your brain, they will not be ‘registered’. Consequently, when you are enjoying a relaxing massage, the rubbing and stroking sends other far more pleasurable signals to your brain, thus ‘populating’ the nerves that carry these signals with a positive message leaving no room for the negative pain message to get through.

There is also some evidence that pleasurable massage results in the release of endorphins which are enzymes produced by the pituitary gland, the positive effects of which resemble the effects of opiate drugs. However, as endorphins are entirely natural and their production is strictly controlled by your body, there is no potential harm involved in experiencing the happiness or exhilaration that is often known as an ‘endorphin rush’.

Furthermore, endorphins also prevent nerve cells releasing more pain signals, which is for example one of the reasons why top sports people can often continue to compete even when they are injured, because extreme activity allied to excitement prompts the ‘rush’ that masks the pain.

The following are the forms of massage that are most commonly associated with providing pain relief.

Swedish massage

Swedish massage is a massage style that was first developed in Scandinavia nearly 200 years ago by Pehr Henrik Ling who learned many of the basics that he would later develop into Swedish massage from a Chinese fellow named Ming with whom he sailed for four years.

After returning to Copenhagen, he developed these ideas still further into something similar to what we recognize as Swedish massage which was first brought to the USA in the 1850s.

From just a small handful of Swedish massage clinics in Boston and Washington, they can now be found in almost every city and town throughout the USA (and throughout most other western countries as well). Hence, Swedish massage is the most popular form of massage in the USA and if using this type of massage to bring pain relief sounds like something you might work for you, it should be relatively easy to find a local practitioner.

The basic concept of Swedish massage is that it focuses on long, gliding strokes of the masseuse hands across your skin, with some ‘kneading’ (the exact same action as if you were making bread) allied to the application of friction techniques to some of the most obvious muscle groups.

Most commonly, the majority of strokes go towards the heart, following the blood flow because there is an emphasis on stimulating blood flow through the soft bodily tissues. This form of massage can be practiced in a relatively vigorous and not so gentle manner or it can be very soft and gentle on the other hand, depending upon circumstances and requirements.

Swedish massage is commonly used to prompt a wide range of benefits including all of the following:

  • It helps relax muscles. Hence, if you have a muscle pain caused by stress, tension or even a slight muscle damage, massage can loosen the muscle and thereby reduce the pain and sometimes also the swelling too.
  • It can help to reduce the pain from other bodily damage such as fractures, sprains, sciatica, stiff joints and strains. This applies equally to people who have suffered injuries and to those who are simply feeling the adverse effects of getting older!
  • There are certain substances in the body that naturally slow down the process of recovering from muscle strains, sprains and damage. Because Swedish massage is effective for removing uric and lactic acid (and other waste products) from your muscles, it helps to speed up the recovery process, meaning that any pain you are suffering will disappear more quickly.
  • As Swedish massage can be used to help to stretch muscles, tendons and ligaments, it helps to prevent the kind of damage that might cause pain at a later date. In effect, Swedish massage is not only curative but preventative too.
  • In general terms, Swedish massage helps to stimulate improved blood circulation, relaxes the nerves and stimulates the nervous system at one and the same time. It also helps to reduce stress and tension which can be a cause of physical pain as tensed up muscles are far more likely to suffer damage or injury the muscles that are loose and flexible.

The bottom line is that 95% people who undergo Swedish massage leave their session feeling markedly better in many, many different ways, both physically and psychologically.

The benefits of Swedish massage for anyone who is suffering any of the particular types of pain highlighted in the previous list are undeniable. If therefore you are suffering muscle, joint or sprain pains, trying Swedish massage before resorting to analgesic painkillers has got to make sense.

In order to find a local Swedish massage center, the most effective tool to use is Google maps to find what you’re looking for (as it is with pretty much anything nowadays).

In this case, a search for ‘Swedish massage Washington’ turns up quite a few results although I have no doubt that searching for something a little less specific and narrowly defined (for example ‘massage’) would probably generate considerably more results, but they would be considerably less well targeted:

On the right you have your map whilst on the left there is a list of all the businesses highlighted on the map. Run a similar search for your own local town or city and you should see broadly similar results.

Deep muscle massage

As the name would probably suggest, the concept of deep muscle massage is to work the muscles more thoroughly than is common in Swedish massage, with the ultimate objective being the release of deep muscle tension to reduce potential muscle pain and stress.

Using this particular form of massage, the masseuse will usually use direct pressure or friction allied with slow strokes as a way of ‘digging’ deeper into the muscles fibers and tissues to alleviate the deepest tension. This is not to suggest that deep muscle massage needs to be painful but it is far more noticeable than Swedish massage, as are the beneficial effects.

With this particular technique, the movements are most commonly carried out across the muscle fibers in a ‘cross grain’ pattern and applied with the fingers, thumbs or perhaps sometimes even elbows. Because of this, the effects are likely to most beneficial to those who have deep muscle tensions, strains and aches that cause them discomfort or pain. Consequently, if Swedish massage does not really provide the pain relief that you need, it might benefit you to consider going one stage further with deep muscle massage.

Thai massage

Thai massage was originally believed to have originated in India where it was heavily influenced by Ayurvedic ideas and philosophy before migrating to Thailand some 2500 years ago.

From that time to this, the original massage techniques that came from India have been increasingly influenced by traditional Chinese medicine so that what we now recognize as Thai massage represents a physical manifestation of a combination of the two great medical traditions of the East.

With the original antecedents of Thai massage coming from India, you may not find it a great surprise to realize that this particular form of massage is often called Thai Yoga Massage, as some people describe it as undertaking a yoga session without doing the exercise yourself.

It is a form of massage that is considerably more demanding and energizing than Swedish massage for example, which of course means that if you suffer serious physical problems of any form, you should consult your doctor before considering undertaking a Thai massage session.

The massage itself is usually performed whilst the ‘patient’ is on the floor and involves the masseuse using their hands, legs, knees and feet to provide the massage. In a similar (but different way) to deep muscle massage, Thai massage gets down to the deepest levels of your muscles and joints, providing relief that Swedish massage may not be capable of providing.

People who have undergone Thai massage will tell you that it is both incredibly relaxing and energizing at exactly the same time, and that muscle aches, pains and strains will go away after the initial ‘buzz’ has subsided.

Once again, if you have muscle pains or aches and Swedish massage does not do the job for you, this is another alternative to consider trying.

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