BY EVA NORLYK-HERRIOTT
Tense shoulders and neck? Low energy? Fall weather getting to you, and you’re just not feeling on top of things?
Consider getting a massage.
Massage, or therapeutic bodywork, to use a more modern and inclusive term, is one of the oldest and most universal forms of medical care. Accounts of the use of massage in the treatment of ailments can be found in ancient Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Egyptian records. Therapeutic bodywork is also one of the fastest-growing modalities within alternative medicine, and many hospitals and other health care providers have made massage therapy a standard part of their services.
The stress-relieving benefits of massage are well known. It makes you feel (and look) great! But the simple art of touch contains a much more varied range of health benefits that we are just beginning to fully understand.
Most people turn to bodywork to treat pain and musculoskeletal problems. And it is true that therapeutic bodywork relaxes tight or sore muscles, restores joint mobility, leads to improved posture, and in many cases brings relief of chronic pain.
But therapeutic bodywork also relieves emotional stress, such as anxiety, tension, or depression. In addition, it aids digestion, improves circulation, strengthens the immune system, hastens injury recovery, and increases overall well-being and peace of mind. People have even found that therapeutic bodywork can help with a wide range of health conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, headaches, allergies, and immune function disorders.
Few other healing modalities can boast such a wide range of benefits. Touch therapy is unique because it improves the functioning of most of the body’s major systems: circulatory, lymphatic, muscular, skeletal, digestive, nervous system, and integumentary system (skin). As such, it ranks up there with things like eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise as a means to slow the progression of aging and prevent many aging-related diseases. If that sounds like a bold statement, take a closer look at how touch therapy interfaces with important body systems.
There is an old joke that goes something like: “What is a human being?” Answer: “A container invented by water, so that it can move around.” The body consists of almost two-thirds water and, as we all know, dehydration can lead to discomfort—even death in serious cases. What is less commonly recognized is how important the movement of all sorts of water-derived fluids throughout our system is for our health and well-being. Most all of our physiological processes are dependent upon the movement of fluids through our system, be it the delivery of nutrients, oxygen, hormones, digestive enzymes, or antibodies to the tissues or the flow of lymph and the removal of waste products from the intracellular matrix. Many systems of natural health consider blocked circulatory channels a major factor in the development of disease.
So when it is said therapeutic bodywork improves circulation, it is no small matter. The network of blood-carrying capillaries in the body is estimated to be 50,000 to 60,000 miles long—a lot of miles for traffic jams to arise! And that doesn’t even count the capillaries and vessels of the secondary circulatory system, the lymphatic system, which is responsible for immune functions and the removal of waste products. When circulation of the blood and movement of lymph are restricted, all functions of the body suffer. By relieving chronic muscle tension and stimulating expansion of the capillaries, massage frees up the circulation of blood and improves lymphatic drainage. The result is enhanced tissue nourishment, more effective detoxification, and increased overall well-being.
Beyond Skin & Bones
Of course, this discussion concerns only the mechanical effects of bodywork—and only a glimpse, at that. But we are much more than a mechanical confluence of muscles, skin, and bones, and massage involves much more than the manipulation of physical components. The underlying reality pattern of the body is an interplay of energy currents, in which physics, chemistry, and quanta of energies interface with the nebulous, fundamental reality of consciousness. As such, massage and bodywork involve not just physical, but emotional and spiritual components as well.
In this framework, there is no real distinction between blocked energy and tension causing dysfunction in the musculoskeletal system and blocked emotions in the mind-body system. Touch can be a means to bring awareness back to the blocked tissues. When muscular tension is released, often long-forgotten emotions are too. As Dean Juhan, author of Job’s Body, the “bible” of bodywork, puts it, “Touching hands are . . . like flashlights in a darkened room. The medicine they administer is self-awareness. And for many of our painful conditions, this is the aid that is most urgently needed.”
In this interface between classical physics and quantum energy, mind and matter, the role of the massage therapist becomes that of a mediator, who through skill and intuition responds to the body’s subtle signals and calls for healing, creating a space for the body’s own healing intelligence to awaken and remove pain and imbalance.
Like exercise, massage produces the best results if you engage in it regularly. Weekly treatments are ideal, but even a monthly treatment can help maintain general health. The good news is that there are many types of massage that you can do for yourself. .
Some Common Types of Bodywork
Acupressure applies gentle fingertip pressure to specific points along the body to release, smooth and balance the flow of vital energy in the body.
Craniosacral Therapy is a gentle, non-invasive therapy that balances the brain and spinal cord to improve the functioning of the nervous system, relieving stress, and facilitating the body’s own healing processes.
Deep Tissue Massage uses direct touch and cross-fiber friction to work into the deeper layers of muscle tissue, releasing chronic muscle tension and pain patterns and promoting detoxification and oxygenation of stagnant tissues.
Lymphatic Drainage uses gentle, rhythmic movements to facilitate lymphatic flow, particularly targeting areas of stagnation.
Myofascial Release addresses restrictions and adhesions in the muscles and in fascia, the body’s connective tissue. Fascia is like the body’s “saran wrap,” a supportive web that surrounds all body structures from muscle fibers to entire muscle groups and organs. By releasing tension stored in the fascia, functional flexibility and mobility can be restored to the whole body.
Reflexology uses pressure points on the feet to balance the internal organs and to increase vital flow to all parts of the body. Similar to acupressure.
Rolfing, like myofascial release, uses deep manipulation of the fascia or connective tissue to release, realign and restore balance to the whole body.
Swedish Massage, despite its name, is based on techniques derived from China, Egypt, and ancient Greece, and it was put together by the Swedish doctor Per Ling in the 19th century. It uses a wide variety of soothing and stimulating strokes to relax the muscles, speed venous returns, enhance lymphatic flow, and improve overall circulation.
Thai Massage uses passive yoga stretches, traditional touch therapy and gentle pressure along energy lines to adjust the skeletal structure, increase joint flexibility, stimulate internal organs, and balance the body’s energy system.
Trigger point and Myotherapy focus on deactivating “trigger points,” i.e. tender areas where muscles have been damaged or acquired a reoccurring spasm. Trigger points can cause referred pain in other parts of the body, and this type of therapy focuses on releasing trigger points by reducing acute and chronic muscle tension and inducing new blood flow into the affected area.
Eva Norlyk-Herriott, Ph.D., L.M.T., is a licensed massage therapist with advanced training in cranio-sacral therapy and Thai massage. Reach her at (641) 919-4626.