Wellness: The Health Benefits of Massage

Many people think of massage as a great way to relax and pamper yourself. That’s true, but it’s not the only reason to get one. Massage in and of itself has a number of health benefits.

Darius Greenbacher, medical director of Baystate Medical Practices in sports and exercise medicine, said he often prescribes massage not just to treat injury, but to get at the root cause of why the injury happened in the first place.

“Just therapeutic touch in general can lower blood pressure, decrease the stress response, which can be positive in any situation,” he said. “For a healthy person, it can help with joint mobility, flexibility, and tension and stress release.”

For those he sees that have been injured, often among the first steps to rehabilitation and healing is to loosen up the muscles that are too tight, that are in what he called a “guarding, reactionary state.”

Typical movement dysfunctions Greenbacher said he sees over and over are when the front of the body, including the chest muscles, get tightened up. This can be caused by lifting weights, exercising in an unbalanced way, or even bad posture sitting at a desk day in and day out.

“So much of what we do is in front of us, and we sit in a collapsed posture,” he said. “The first step we often need to take is to relieve these muscles that are overdeveloped, tight, and shortened. They need to be worked on regularly, multiple times a week at a massage therapist.”

Loosening those muscles, can lead to the ability to re-educating, and have people use more healthy postures in the future.

The idea of massage as a treatment option can be undermined by those who see it as a frivolous luxury splurge, he said.

“Unfortunately, our insurance companies kind of often continue that misconception by not covering it,” he said, though he added that some insurance plans do cover massage.

The flip side of that is that many area massage therapists are well-trained, able to offer more than just exercises or heating and icing.

“They can get them moving in a comfortable way … which really helps normalize it and also helps educate people,” he said.

A massage therapist in Greenfield, Patty Smythe said that beyond relaxation, the greatest benefit of massage is to reconnect people with what is going on in their body.

She treats muscular discomfort, mild headaches, back pain, and shoulder pain. She emphasized that often results aren’t immediate.

“Whatever imbalance is going on didn’t happen overnight and it often takes a few sessions to help straighten it out,” she said.

Some people look to massage as a way to zone out while someone rubs their skin, but an effective massage to address an issue requires the client to participate in the process, she said.

“Why is a muscle or group of muscles tightening up and creating pain?” she said. “Pain is a language the body uses to get attention. What behavior is creating problems or was there a trauma of some sort like a car accident?”

Lisa Gallauresi is a massage therapist who, as part of her practice, performs massage on cancer patients through Cancer Connection in Northampton. She also performs infant, prenatal, and partner massage, giving women about to give birth the benefits of massage as well as providing their partners tools to help through a normal labor.

She said she got involved with Cancer Connection when she moved to the area 11 years ago because it was such a unique organization.

“When an opportunity opened up for an oncology massage therapist within the organization I felt very moved to apply. It is an amazing opportunity to serve the community and work alongside inspiring, creative and supportive people,” she said.

When asked about the health benefits of massage, Gallauresi pointed to a recent interview researcher Tiffany Fields at the University of Miami Florida. Fields said massage decreases the body’s cortisol level and increases dopamine and serotonin levels.

“If people say massage works ‘because it makes you feel good’ … excuse me! Massage works because it changes your whole physiology,” Fields said in the piece.

Gallauresi practices oncology massage, which is a modification of massage techniques that allows a therapist to safely work with effects of cancer and cancer treatment. This can be performed on people in active treatment, those in recovery or survivorship, as well as those at the end of life.

Research on oncology massage states that it is linked to reduction in pain, aspirin use, and blood pressure, as well as an increase in mood and relaxation, she said. It has not been linked to a reduction in nausea, but it does significantly reduce anxiety, she said.

“Think about that for a minute. It is big. When your child falls down what do you do? You hold them. You rub and pat the boo boo. You touch them. In that space is where healing can happen,” she said.

At the same time, massage does not treat cancer — it is a way patients can deal with the side effects of cancer.

Cancer Connection also offers free services to caregivers and family members.

“This understanding that cancer touches the person, the family and indeed the larger community is unique,” she said. “I am so grateful to be a small part of what happens there.”

Rianna Larkin, who works at Cancer Connection, has had cancer and chronic pain, though she is well now, she said.

Massage is the most requested integrative therapy that Cancer Connection offers, Larkin said.

“We have one man in his late 30s who actually had cancer first when he was 6; it went into remission and he started businesses, and now cancer is kicking his butt,” she said. “Massage is the only thing that really helps him through his week.”

Larkin received massage during her own cancer treatment. She said getting a cancer diagnosis is such a blow and that there is no way to process such news. Getting well became the focus of her life as it is for just about all cancer patients, she said.

“To be able to have a massage to take them out of that,” she said, “that in itself is healing.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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