It’s said that ‘the body doesn’t lie’, a cliche, but in my experience I’ve found this to be true. These bodies of ours are sophisticated, interlinked systems that both react to and interact with the world around us. So what do we do with stress, physical and mental overload, strong emotions and all those external and internal pressures that play out daily? Our bodies are masters at hiding, storing and holding it deep in our living tissue via the nervous system. My style of massage is based on listening to your words and reason for treatment, and as importantly, deep listening based on your body’s story and it’s unique need at that time.
“The skin is the surface of the brain.”- Deane Juhan (Job’s Body).
This may sound like a clever aphorism but, in fact, there is much truth to it. When we start out as a fertilized egg, the egg begins to divide, and those early divisions produce a mass of undifferentiated cells that are identical to each other. At a point, something amazing happens – this undifferentiated mass begins to divide into three distinct layers.
The endoderm goes on to become the internal organs.
The mesoderm later becomes the musculoskeletal system.
The ectoderm becomes the brain, the spinal cord, the peripheral nerves . . . and the skin.
Our brains, the nervous systems, and skin are intimately linked from the very beginning.
This is not entirely surprising. Besides serving the function of keeping the outside world out of our body and keeping our insides in, providing a protective barrier between us and that which is not us, the skin is how our brain monitors our external environment. Approximately 1,000 nerve endings per square inch of skin, on average, are responding to temperature, pressure, stretch, vibration, light touch, chemical irritants, etc. The brain is constantly receiving information, processing it, responding, then continuing to monitor both internal and external changes. The brain and the nervous system never sleep, never take a break. It is constantly active and, in spite of comprising only 2% of our body mass, it uses 20% of our energy. It’s a very busy, hard working system!
In remedial massage we are of course interacting with the skin (and muscles, fascia & soft tissue under hand). But what might be happening during this interaction and what might be the response that massage invokes?
Currently, there are two generally held views. These responses are synergistic, interchangeable and a good massage should naturally and seamlessly blend elements of both.
Together, these responses can produce direct and indirect physical and emotional benefits.
The first is the relaxation response. In a massage, a caring, experienced, and safe touch is an invitation to relax and activate the relaxation response. It is as much an inborn mechanism as the stress response, and it is vital for reducing the negative effects of physical, emotional, and psychological wear-and-tear on our bodies.
The relaxation response is a deep state in which the heart and breathing rates slow down, the body begins to relax, the production of stress hormones decreases, blood pressure decreases, and the muscles begin to let go of their subconscious tension and relax.
At every moment, the brain is, in turn, responding and creating changes, the pleasant sensations we experience, allowing us to shift out of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and into the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state.
So it’s not necessarily the pressure alone on the tissues that makes them change but the nervous system doing the job, which means we don’t have to push so hard on the body to make it feel good. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that a less forceful approach can often be just as effective and does not carry the risk of causing pain or injuring the client. In massage we cannot force the body to relax; we cannot bully the nervous system into turning down the volume on pain and we cannot beat the nervous system into submission. In fact, we cannot really make the body do anything. We can try to set up the right conditions, coax it, convince it, but we cannot directly make any real changes happen to structures with our hands. It is the brain that creates all those sensations that we enjoy, it and the spinal cord are the messengers allowing us to access the relaxation response and feel refreshed. It’s the nervous system that turns down the volume on pain and relieves us of the sensation of tension. Change truly does come from within and by opening up a dialogue between the external skin/soft tissues and the nervous system. It is a skill and one I am constantly refining and reflecting on.
In terms of potential benefits, it’s believed that the relaxation response may play a role in combating the physical effects of stress and reduces the associated risks of health issues like;
* Cardiac arrhythmias
* Persistent fatigue
* Digestive disorders
* Psychological issues
The second and other common response triggered when having a massage is known as the mechanical response.
This is the effect that happens when pressure is applied to soft tissue like muscle.
So, what are mechanical responses to massage?
The physical manipulation of massage has two major physical effects:
* An increase in blood and lymph circulation within the body to help nourish and cleanse cells.
* A recalibration of baseline tension of the soft tissue (primarily muscles), which soothes and releases nervous tension and deeper connective tissues (related to the relaxation response).
Improving circulation with massage
Massage improves blood and lymph circulation. For many of us who sit at a desk for long periods of time, massage could be considered something like a stressless physical workout in that it moves the fluids that nourish and cleanse your body in a healthy way. Simple and very effective. Of course, I advise you to exercise however you can to help maintain your health. Massage should not be seen as a replacement for that in any way.
Improving circulation can also improve the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells.
A well-nourished and happy cell that’s functioning efficiently leads to the removal of waste products out of the body and may even reduce swelling in soft tissues.
Relaxing muscles using massage
The effects of a massage include a lowering of the everyday tension we unknowingly hold in our muscles which can lead to a reduction of any painful muscle spasms and irritated nerves.
To get a better understanding of this, visualize a tight muscle compressing the nerves around them. When these muscles are relaxed, the nerves are no longer compressed and can perform their functions more easily.
A happy and relaxed nervous system can more easily transmit messages to and from the brain, which improves the functioning of the muscles and organs (something elite athletes have understood for years)
It’s amazing how rapidly muscles begin to relax during a massage. Even deeper tissues of the body such as deep spinal musculature, which can’t be easily accessed by a massage therapist, can be positively influenced by the release of more superficial layers of muscles.
Organs can benefit from massage too!
Organs share neurological pain pathways with muscles, bones, and nerves. When muscles, bones, or nerves are distressed, organs can sometimes reflect distress and dysfunction themselves. In the Chinese medicine understanding of the body, the exterior and the interior are reflections of one another, this is also reflected in the acupuncture channel system which runs along distinct areas and lines of the body and ultimately has links to various organs and viscera. So a surface treatment from this perspective can be viewed as very beneficial to the various organs and their regulation.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about exactly what goes on at a physiological level during massage. Exactly how does our touch get turned into a change in physiological processes and exactly what and how are those physiological processes change is still being studied and researched. While we wait for more definitive answers on those mechanisms it shouldn’t stop us from accessing and using that which we know intuitively as being so beneficial for us.
At Kintsugi Therapies I always carry out a thorough pre-screening prior to your first massage session to cover all bases. This helps me to understand your reason for seeking treatment and the desired outcomes you are hoping for (even if just deep relaxation). I aim to make your experience as comfortable as possible and be realistic and upfront about the number of sessions you may require to see therapeutic improvement, if that is your reason for coming. I also have other therapies that I can use that complements massage very well. These can sometimes give you the edge on your road to recovery or to help get you feeling at your best again.
If you’ve read this far and have some further questions about remedial massage and the remedial massage treatment process at Kintsugi Therapies, please visit my comprehensive frequently asked questions page linked below and check under the ‘remedial massage questions’ heading. If you still can’t find the information you’re looking for, I’ve included a form on that page if you need to get in touch with any further questions or queries.