As WLP’s massage therapist, I help people feel better and recover faster, and all they have to do is lie down and let me get to work. But there’s a lot more to an effective massage than just rubbing and pressing: by knowing exactly where to touch and how, a massage therapist can activate the body’s natural systems to provide a variety of health benefits.
Let’s start with how massages reduce pain. Your body is filled with many different types of nerves responsible for triggering movement, enabling sensation, maintaining balance, keeping your heart beating, reporting pain and so on.
One of the many ways that massage can help your body is by interrupting or overwhelming the nerves that report pain in injured tissue, called nociceptors. These nociceptors have to share their neurological pathway to the brain with a whole variety of other nerves, which, if stimulated, can send a stronger or faster signal to the brain to temporarily distract it from the pain.
For example, rubbing and brushing the skin can stimulate the cutaneous nerves (responsible for skin sensation), gentle movement can stimulate the proprioceptors (which report the position of your joints so that you can balance) and pressing into the tissue can stimulate the mechanoreceptors (which respond to pressure).
The trick is to activate the correct nerves to overwhelm or interrupt the signal from the nociceptors, without accidentally stimulating the nociceptors themselves, which would only increase the pain and inhibit the nerves that we want to be stimulated. This is why a bad massage can do far more harm than good, and slow down the recovery process.
On top of the neurological effects, massage – like exercise – also releases endorphins which act as a natural analgesic.
These analgesic effects are temporary, but they can greatly aid long term pain reduction and injury rehabilitation. By relieving the pain, we have a brief window where we can restore movement to areas that were being inhibited, and the more the body can move normally, the easier it is to recover from pain and injury.
Movement is further encouraged through stimulation of the gamma motor neuron, which initiates muscle contraction, and by using deep tissue massage to break down scar tissue and muscle adhesion which develop after an injury and may be impeding movement. Massage can also lengthen muscles that are too tight and reduce muscle spasms.
Injuries can take longer to recover if there’s inadequate blood supply to the tissue as the cells won’t be receiving the nutrients they need to repair, or be able to flush out the metabolic waste. Again, this is an area where massage can help.
Through mechanical pressure on veins and stimulation of the affected tissue, massage can improve circulation, reduce blood pressure and dilate capillaries. Vasodilators (substances that dilate blood vessels) such as histamine and acetylcholine are also locally released during massage to further encourage blood flow.
Of course, despite all the fantastic scientific reasons why massage is good for you, there’s the simple fact that it feels good. Not that you need any evidence, but clinical trials have repeatedly shown dramatic reduction in stress levels amongst people who receive regular massages – and an unstressed body is a healthy body.
Massages form a vital part of rehabilitation and performance improvement here at WLP, but they are also available by themselves for people who simply need to give their body some much needed attention. If you have any questions about massage therapy or would like to book an appointment, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.