While massage used to be considered an indulgence, it is now recognized as a legitimate therapy for some painful conditions. Therapeutic massage may relieve pain by relaxing painful muscles, tendons, and joints; relieving stress and anxiety; and possibly helping to close the ‘pain gate’ by stimulating competing nerve fibers and impeding pain messages to and from the brain.
A variety of massage types can be used for pain. The most common are the following:
- Sports massage
- Deep tissue massage
- Remedial massage
- Therapeutic massage
A massage can help to decrease pain, and pain can arise for a variety of reasons. Common causes of pain include injury, trauma, or muscle overuse. Pain occurs when receptors within the skin detect something isn’t right. The receptors will then send a signal to the brain where it is then passed on to nerves. Nerves are what create a feeling of pain. A massage aims to reduce pain by increasing healing and disturbing the pain signals sent to the brain. During a massage, the skin and fingers create friction. Friction encourages blood flow to increase. Oxygen and nutrients are carried within the blood flow. Oxygen and nutrients are essential for the repair of damaged muscle fibers. Increasing blood flow therefore increases the rate of healing helping to reduce pain. The friction created between the skin and fingers, also creates a new sensation. The new sensation is picked up by the receptors within the skin, disturbing the signal sent to the brain. Disturbing the signal sent to the brain means fewer messages are sent to nerves to create a feeling of pain. A new message encouraging relaxation and decreased pain is sent to replace the original message. Disturbing the signal sent to the brain therefore reduces pain.
A massage for pain can help decrease tension. Tension is where muscles are unable to relax and stay in the state of contraction. Tension can cause muscular knots to form and muscle tightness to increase, further increasing feelings of chronic pain. Chronic pain can increase tension due to a restriction in movement. Movement is restricted to prevent pain and damage from increasing. A massage for chronic pain can reduce tension by encouraging relaxation and increasing range of movement. During a massage, muscle temperature increases due to an increase in blood flow. When muscle temperature increases, the elasticity and flexibility of tissues increase, and muscles can loosen and stretch. When muscles loosen and stretch, relaxation increases, reducing tension. An increase in tissue elasticity and flexibility, improves range of movement to help further reduce a build-up of tension. Reducing tension by improving range of movement and increasing relaxation also helps to decrease pain.
Stress can also be reduced through massage for pain. Pain, especially chronic; increases stress due to the long period of restricted movement, increased pain, and disability to carry out normal everyday activities. Chronic pain can cause stress to increase both physically and mentally. Stress increases physically by restricting movement, causing muscles to tighten and the ability of muscles reaching its full length to decrease. Stress is increased mentally by chronic pain due to a stress hormone called cortisol. A massage aims to reduce stress by encouraging relaxation of muscles and reducing cortisol levels. Relaxation is increased due to an increase in muscle temperature. Increasing muscle temperature allows muscles to relax by increasing tissue elasticity. Increasing relaxation decreases physical symptoms of stress. A massage stimulates the production and release of feel-good hormones. Feel good hormones include endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Feel good hormones are responsible for increasing mental relaxation providing a sense of well-being while also reducing stress. Feel good hormones replace cortisol to help further reduce stress.
There are also physiological effects of massage for pain which include increased temperature, removal of waste products and increased endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.
An increase in temperature occurs throughout a massage for chronic pain. Temperature can increase within both superficial and deep layers of muscle tissues as well as within the layers of fascia, a tough layer of fibrous connective tissues. A range of techniques that are used within a massage create friction between the skin and fingers. Friction stimulates an increase in blood flow to occur to the treatment area. An increase in blood flow as well as friction both increase temperature. Increasing temperature through massage for chronic pain helps to relieve muscle tightness and tension as well as increase relaxation and reduce stress. Relieving tightness and tension, increasing relaxation, and reducing stress all through an increase in temperature help to reduce symptoms of chronic pain.
Massage can also help with removal of waste products. Waste products can build up within muscles causing muscle weakness and fatigue. Muscle weakness and fatigue can prolong the effects of pain resulting in chronic pain increasing. The removal of waste products occurs within the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is made of tiny lymph vessels that transport lymph fluid around the body towards glands and nodes. The lymph fluid contains the waste products and the glands or nodes it is transported to, is where the waste products are removed from the body. The most common types of glands are sweat glands which are most often found in the armpit, groin and behind the knee. Stimulating the lymphatic system helps to rid the body of waste products which helps reduce muscle weakness and fatigue and therefore helps with reducing overall pain.
An increase in endorphins, serotonin and dopamine can also occur during massage. Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine are feel-good hormones that are circulated around the body within the blood flow. These hormones are responsible for positive feelings and these positive feelings include increased relaxation, reduced stress, a sense of well-being, relieved anxiety, and an increase in motivation. Chronic pain is often increased due to a constant feeling of stress. When stress levels are too high, this can also cause depression and anxiety to occur which can further worsen the pain. A massage stimulates the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the release of the feel-good hormones. As well as stimulating the autonomic nervous system, a massage also increases blood flow which the hormones are carried within. Stimulation of both the autonomic nervous system and the blood flow both encourage an increase in endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine to occur. Increasing feel good hormones help to reduce pain by relieving stress, depression and anxiety and replacing the feelings with relaxation, happiness, and enthusiasm.
Simple self-massage technique:
One way to try “tapping” into the benefits of massage is by trying a technique called: Tapping or Brushing. This simple self-massage technique can be done while standing, seated or lying down. Follow these simple steps:
- Find a position that you feel comfortable maintaining for 3-5 minutes
- If standing or sitting, make sure that your back can maintain an upright, straight position by either your own strength, or prop up against a chair back or wall if standing
- Take one hand on the opposite shoulder and begin by ‘brushing’ the shoulder (as if you were brushing away a fleck of dust) from the neck to the edge of the shoulder
- Continue the motion a few strokes, then move to the upper arm
- Lower arm
- Repeat on the other side
- This can also be done as a ‘Tapping’ motion with one or two figures or a soft fist (very gently)
A study published in Annals of Family Medicine in 2014 found that 60-minute therapeutic massage sessions two or three times a week for four weeks relieved chronic neck pain better than no massage or fewer or shorter massage sessions.
Massage therapy can involve varying degrees of pressure. When researching types of massage, keep in mind that massage doesn’t have to be hard or painful to be therapeutic. Lighter massage can be more relaxing and therefore potentially more beneficial depending on the situation. People with pain conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome may only be able to tolerate light pressure.
While there is no data to suggest that massage is harmful, there are situations where it is not recommended. For instance – massaging an inflamed area of skin, can make it worse by causing more inflammation. No massage in an area that is infected either as this may cause the infection to spread.
The American Massage Therapy Association also lists heart problems, infectious disease, phlebitis, and some skin conditions as reasons to avoid massage.
Massage is a core part of Rejuv at Work. Therapeutic touch is a vital part of the body’s health and wellbeing and increases an employee’s focus, motivation, and contentment. On the website, there are several webinars and videos that offer ways to learn how to do a self-message, facial massage, or even partner massage.
Rejuv at Work also offers several options for Mind-Body classes and/or workshops such as: Stretch at Your Desk, Deskercise, Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates. These are all ways to help reduce and manage stress and anxiety; as well as promote a healthier and happier outlook and work environment. Movement and exercise are also ways to lubricate the muscles, joints, and mind to help the body function and feel better overall.