The Healing Touch: Benefits of Massage
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The Healing Touch: Benefits of Massage

You probably think of massage as a once-in-a-while splurge. But medical research shows that the feel-good treatment has real health benefits.

Get Relief from Insomnia

If you're one of the estimated 40 million Americans who had a massage last year, you know that a good one feels fantastic. Now medical research is showing that this relaxing ritual can actually improve your health, and not just in a vague, happiness-boosting way.

"More and more, we find massage can have measurable medical benefits for a variety of conditions," says Brent Bauer, MD, director of complementary integrative medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Research has shown that it can increase the number of cancer-fighting cells in breast cancer patients, make osteoarthritis sufferers more mobile, and help reduce the spasms of Parkinson's disease. It offers potent benefits to healthy people, as well. "Massage -- even self-massage -- slows the heart rate and lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

The evidence is apparently convincing family doctors: Fifty-seven percent of people who talked to their doctor about having massages reported that their doctor strongly recommended or encouraged them, says an American Massage Therapy Association survey. In fact, twice as many doctors recommended it to patients in 2006 than just five years earlier -- though it's still hard to get insurance reimbursement. "Even for sports injuries, major surgery, and spinal injuries, only about half of insurance companies cover it in some way," says Dr. Field. It's best to use a licensed practitioner who can target the massage to your situation. Here's a quick guide.

Get Relief from Insomnia

Massage prescription: Lots of anecdotal evidence -- and some research on chronic fatigue -- supports the idea that a good rub can lead to a good night's sleep. Medical facilities including the Mayo Clinic and South Miami Hospital use bedside massage to help patients relax and sleep more easily.

Doctor's orders: A weekly massage is ideal.

Self-help: Give yourself -- or have someone give you -- a nightly foot massage, suggests Dr. Field. "Apply moderate pressure and slow, soothing motions for at least five minutes. That gives you time for a relaxation response so you fall asleep more easily, sleep well, and wake up more refreshed."

Calm a Headache

Massage prescription: Massage decreases cortisol, the stress hormone that can tighten muscles, triggering a tension headache. Studies show simple neck and shoulder massage reduced both the number of chronic headaches people got and how long each one lasted. Weekly Trager massages decreased medication usage by 44 percent. Even those with hard-to-treat migraines can get relief from weekly craniosacral massages and may also sleep better.

Doctor's orders: Get massages once or even twice a week at first, then less often as you feel better. Choose the Trager or craniosacral technique if you prefer to keep your clothes on during treatments. And be sure that no one but a licensed expert massages your neck -- in rare cases an intense neck massage done incorrectly can make an injury worse or even cause a stroke.

Self-help: Place two tennis balls in a sock. Lie on your back on a flat surface and place the sock at the base of your skull with your chin tucked down. Gently massage your temples and slowly breathe in and out, says Deborah Engen, a licensed massage therapist who has participated in massage studies at the Mayo Clinic. "The trick is to start massaging as soon as the pangs begin. It's easier to treat a mild headache than a severe one."

Lessen Chronic Pain

Massage prescription: Scientists are finding that regular massage may lessen the chronic pain of fibromyalgia and reduce the use of pain medication. It may also keep discomfort lower for up to three months after the treatments.

Doctor's orders: Get a 30-minute full-body massage twice a week for at least six weeks. Avoid deep-tissue massage or any other technique involving firm pressure. If someone is already hypersensitive to pain, intense touching may be too uncomfortable. If so, "You may find relief with a movement method like Trager," says Dr. Field. Be sure to tell the therapist what feels good and what hurts.

Self-help: Massaging yourself won't work, but if you're doing Trager, ask for training in Mentastics, Trager's self-help relaxation technique.

Soothe a Backache

Massage prescription: Moderate massage can help relieve lower-back pain, says Dr. Field. For intense pain in a limited area, consider reflexology, a therapy in which specific points on the foot are massaged, helping the back. After three reflexology massages in one week, 63 percent of patients with herniated discs reported pain reduction, notes one study.

Doctor's orders: "When you get a massage, tell the therapist where it hurts, and speak up if pressure causes pain," says Engen.

Self-help: For the whole back, says Engen, buy a foam physio roller or foam "noodle" pool toy. Lie on top so it's aligned vertically with your spine. "With knees bent, roll side to side so the noodle presses against your body from neck to lower back." For your lower back, Dr. Field suggests sitting against a wall, with a tennis ball at the base of your spine. Move slowly from side to side, pressing against the ball, while rolling it along your lower back.

Cut Carpal Tunnel Pain

Massage prescription: Massage can prevent and reduce the pain of this repetitive stress injury. In one study the combination of self-massage and weekly treatments by a massage therapist reduced pain and increased grip strength (severe CTS weakens the hand's ability to grasp).

Doctor's orders: Weekly massage of your arms, wrists, and hands, using moderate pressure.

Self-help: Push up your sleeve and rest the arm that hurts straight in front of you on a table, palm up. Using the fingertips of your other hand, massage or rub upward from your fingertips to your elbow. (If the touch hurts, stroke more gently.) Repeat slowly, 10 to 20 times; then flip your arm so it's resting palm down on the table and do the same number of touches. If pain hasn't subsided, repeat on both sides up to three more times.

Heal After You Have Surgery

Massage prescription: A 2007 survey of hospitals with massage-therapy programs found that 71 percent of them offer massage to patients for stress management and comfort and more than two-thirds for pain management. "We found that patients who received massages the first day after cardiac surgery -- and daily after that -- had significant improvements in their pain, anxiety, and tension," says Dr. Bauer. Bedside massages are routine care for cardiac and colorectal surgical patients at the Mayo Clinic; some breast-cancer patients at Scripps Memorial, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, and the University of Texas; some presurgery patients at Duke; and those in the Palliative Care Unit at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Doctor's orders: Any practitioner employed by a hospital will be trained to adapt the massage to your medication, blood pressure, and incisions. Typically the therapist will use a combination of Swedish strokes and lymphatic-drainage techniques designed to help expel fluids that can accumulate in the body after surgery.

Self-help: If swelling continues after you heal from surgery -- it's common after breast-cancer operations -- you may be able to learn massage techniques to reduce discomfort. Compression garments may also help.

Massage Menu

Craniosacral: A gentle massage of points along the head and spine; you can keep your clothes on for this type.

Deep tissue: The therapist stretches and kneads muscles in strong, short strokes with deep pressure to work out knots and kinks to relieve pain.

Localized: Choose this type for its focus on the part that is a problem area -- head, neck, shoulder. The practitioner may use deep-tissue or Swedish-style touch.

Lymphatic drainage: This method uses light, fluttery strokes to stimulate your lymphatic system and help push excess fluid out of the swollen area.

Reflexology: This is a specialized technique in which the therapist massages specific points on your foot to stimulate nerve channels that relieve pain in other parts of your body.

Swedish: A classic method that uses long, smooth strokes, some kneading and friction to apply moderate pressure along your muscles and connective tissue.

Trager: The therapist helps you perform gentle rocking and stretching motions that relieve pain and reduce stress. It's a good choice if you prefer being fully or partially clothed.

Which Therapist?

Performing massage requires detailed understanding of physiology and mastery of techniques. The therapist should have the proper licenses and proof of training.

Licensed massage therapist. Most states require therapists to pass a national certification exam. Many therapists earn additional certifications in specialized forms of massage, including reflexology, Swedish massage, and Trager massage.

Occupational therapist. An OT will occasionally integrate massage into an overall plan for patients they're treating for hand injury or lymphedema.

Physical therapist. Along with other forms of manual manipulation and exercise, PT's may use Swedish and deep-tissue techniques to help reduce pain and let patients regain full movement after injury or surgery.

Nurse massage therapist. This RN has an additional license in massage therapy and may be connected to a clinic or other medical facility.

For a therapist, see amtamassage.org/findamassage/locator.aspx.

- By Emily Chau

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.

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