The Hands-On Approach to Massage Therapy

Though massages are often sought for their relaxation benefits, a massage isn’t just for personal pleasure. There are physical and emotional health benefits to massage therapy, and even a simple touch can trigger physiological changes in a person.

Massages are used to relieve stress and anxiety. From headaches to strains, individuals seek massage therapy for many reasons, including to help those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. Such therapy, though, does not take the place of other medical treatments an individual may require, although people with digestive problems, stress-related insomnia, sports injuries, or fibromyalgia may also seek massage therapy in conjunction with their prescribed medical programs.

Combating Withdrawal Symptoms with Massage

According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), a massage can increase serotonin and dopamine levels. During withdrawal, dopamine levels drop, creating much discomfort for the individual. The increase in the neurotransmitter during massage therapy helps the person feel better. It stimulates the reward system in the brain, and cortisol and other stress hormones are reduced, so emotional issues, such as anxiety, agitation, and sleep disturbances, can be better managed. These hormones also increase pain and weaken the immune system, so these reductions have many benefits.

Why Touch?

Laboratory studies have shown a significant connection between touch and emotion. A study by Dacher Keltner explored how touches between strangers could convey emotions. One person would touch the other by sticking their arm through a barrier, and the second person was asked to guess the feeling being conveyed. Researchers estimated the odds of guessing the right emotion at about 8 percent. Participants in the study, however, had a successful guess rate for compassion of close to 60 percent. More than half the time, emotions such as anger, love, fear, or gratitude were correctly identified.

Accepting touch as so beneficial is hard for some people to fathom. Primates spend much of the day grooming one another, but in societies like the United States, individuals are often attuned to avoid touching one another. From ethics to personal space, the reasons are many. Touch not only sends a signal of safety and trust; it also has physiological benefits. It reduces cardiovascular stress and increases hormones like oxytocin, which helps one feel love and compassion.

A massage stimulates pressure receptors. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it reduces stress hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. This triggers a chemical reaction that causes a person to feel less anxious and sleep better. Individuals often feel more receptive to the help of others and are more amendable to other means of managing life issues other than substance abuse.


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Are There Risks with a Massage

There aren’t many risks associated with massage. Depending on the pressure and type of massage, a person may feel a little sore in the day or two following the massage. Few individuals experience pain from the therapy alone.

The hands-on nature of a massage is generally comforting. The massage therapist can adjust the amount of pressure they apply, so if the client feels uncomfortable, they just have to communicate that to the therapist. There are few cons; however, according to Mayo Clinic, massages are not recommended for people who have:

  • Unexplained pain
  • Bone fractures
  • Burns or wounds
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Bleeding disorders

What is Touch Therapy?

Massage therapy does not require any preparation, although a therapist may inquire regarding the client’s goals, symptoms, and medical history. It is usually performed on a table but can also be done while the client sits in a chair. While most massages involve some level of undress, clients are always covered with a sheet, or can be fully clothed if that is preferred.

A qualified therapist will usually evaluate areas of pain or tenseness using touch, so they know the right amount of pressure to apply. Oil or lotion is generally used to sooth the skin and allow for fluid motions. Massage therapy sessions can last as little as 10 minutes or as long as 90 minutes. On average, most sessions last 60-75 minutes.

Touch therapy doesn’t always have to involve a massage. For example, therapeutic touch was standardized in the 1970s based on ancient practices of touching that were believed to have healing capabilities. Though it’s not a substitute for medical treatment, touch therapy can complement medical care to boost healing. According to the University of Minnesota, the practice caters to the body’s energy. Therapists will seek to clear or balance that energy to enhance one’s natural ability to heal. Other benefits include reduced pain and anxiety.

These therapies that involve touch or massage are viewed as complementary in that they are used in conjunction with more traditional therapies.

The History of Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is a practice that is at least 5,000 years old. Traditional holistic medicine involving the practice of massage was documented by around 3000 BC in India, and there are written records of massage therapy in China and Egypt around 2500 BC. It was brought to Japan by monks sometime around 1000 BC and introduced in Ancient Greece by philosophers and athletes.

Europeans recognized the healing powers of massage from the 17th through 19th centuries. Throughout the 20th century, massage therapy evolved from a luxury in the US to a means for medical treatment and maintaining overall wellness.

Its Effectiveness as a Treatment for Substance Abuse

A 2011 study documented in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that massage therapy was beneficial to women suffering from anxiety and depression. Of the 46 individuals involved in the study, it was found that those who underwent body-oriented therapy, involving massages from licensed therapists, developed skills for addressing physical and emotional tension and other means for self-care. The outpatient program lasted 12-24 weeks, and participants met with massage therapists 2-3 times per week. At three-month, six-month and nine-month follow-up points, participants were surveyed on their psychological and physical wellbeing, perceived stress, and substance use. The results indicate positive effects when using massage therapy to treat substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, and perceived stress; in addition, massage was shown to strengthen the mind-body connection.

Experts agree that a variety of factors contribute to addiction. As a result, a multifaceted treatment program is needed to manage the recovery process. Research-based treatment often includes medication, psychotherapy, medical detox, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and complementary therapies, such as massage therapy, can round out a treatment program, offering clients the most robust treatment experience available.

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