Everyone loves a massage, right? Well, no; many actually don’t or at least don’t like the idea of having a massage. Removing clothing, feeling awkward, poor body image, body parts being touched, being ticklish might all be reasons to avoid going near it. What does the word massage mean to you? There are many connotations ranging from a luxury pampering to downright sleazy and several things in between. Most people think of either a spa type experience as a treat or a sports setting, perhaps rehabilitation or remedial treatment. Not many consider it a regular form of their health regime.
What kind of massage am I talking about? Well, massage is generally defined as the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body (the skin, the muscles, connective tissue) for therapeutic purposes. It can take several forms. It can be done with hands, no hands, hot stones and, more recently, lava shells. It may be carried out seated or lying down, fully clothed or partially clothed, full body or on a specific area. But in its most simplistic form, massage is Touch. Touch is the first sense we acquire (Psychology Today). Research has shown that newborns who are given nurturing touch grow faster and have improved mental and motor skill development. In daily life we hug, we shake hands, hold hands, we rub a back, or a sore elbow, stroke our neck, run fingers through hair – these are all every day, yet powerful, actions and they are all a form of massage either of ourselves or someone else. It can be comforting, reassuring, pain relieving and stress relieving among other things. Touching others is something many of us have missed during the restrictions of the past year.
We know that massage has existed since ancient times and although in some cultures it has continued ever since, it has only become mainstream in West from the 20th Century. St Thomas’s hospital in London actually had a massage department until 1930s, it was used to treat soldiers after World War 1 suffering from shell shock or from nerve injury, but in general massage was perceived as a luxury for the wealthy. It got a boost, however, in the 1980s when people watching the Summer Olympics on TV saw the athletes being treated and got a glimpse of how massage could be used. By the 1990s the wellness movement, fitness boom, concern about unhealthy stress, and growth of alternative medicine all contributed to a rising public interest in massage therapy which expanded to include diverse massage styles (natural-therapy.com).
Of course, you don’t have to be an olympian or an elite athlete to have massage, it can be just as helpful after a workout, dance class, jog or any kind of physical activity. The benefits can help with recovery from workouts for people of all levels of fitness.(1)
Whichever type of massage you choose, the therapeutic benefits are similar on a physiological level. Working on a muscle warms it and brings the blood supply to it, conveying oxygen and removing waste. These are all desirable both pre and post exercise. Warm muscles are less likely to strain, being oxygenated means better performance and carrying away waste means less stiffness afterwards. The reduced tension, removal of waste products and an increased range of movement also give an improved feeling of relaxation as well as stimulating the body’s own healing process.
When done before workouts, massage can also help clear the mind to better prepare you for the training session or workout. It can also help relieve pain and soreness giving you the ability to workout harder and prepare better because you are not as ‘tight’. Muscles that have been loosened after a massage can also make stretching during your workout more fluid. This is itself could help prevent injuries, though of course the best way to avoid injuries is to listen to your body and not push too far, especially if you feel pain.
We are all familiar with delayed onset muscle soreness. We engage in some activity, feel great until next day or even the day after that, when we feel pain, stiffness or soreness. This is often caused by acid building up in the muscles and the body not being able to get rid of it quickly enough. It can also be due to the microscopic tearing of muscle fibres and subsequent inflammation. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Ohio State University found that massage ‘increases the percentage of regenerating muscle fibres’ especially when done immediately after exercise. The fresh blood supply with nutrients which are brought to the muscle during massage helps repair the damaged tissues. This relieves pain and allows a continuation of activity and is particularly useful for those doing regular exercise or training who need to be able to keep up a regime, to recover quickly and reduce the risk of injury. Speedy recovery from injury is a key benefit of adding massage to your fitness routine. In many injuries the muscles tighten up and tend to shorten when they are healing. Massage loosens up the muscles and helps restore them to their original length. Massage can also help prevent further injury by relaxing those muscles and taking some of the tension or tightness out of them. It does this by addressing the ability of your muscles and soft tissues to be stretched and smoothed out.
It is interesting to notice that it is not only muscles that cause stiffness or restricted movement but also the fascia – the connective tissue which covers the entire body. Fascia has come to the forefront recently as more research is being done and there is a much greater understanding of this part of our anatomy. Healthy fascia is smooth, slippery and flexible, it is designed to stretch as you move.(2) But it can thicken somewhat and stick together when there is a lack of movement. It is easily stretched and smoothed out initially, for example after a night’s sleep we will stretch when we get up and this can release it. We’ve all seen a cat or dog stretching after a period of rest or inactivity and it is something most animals do. However when an area is not moved regularly the fascia can gather into what Gil Hedley Ph.D (3) calls a ‘fuzz’ and the longer it is left the denser it becomes. This in turn can restrict movement as it tightens up around muscles. It’s a slow accumulation – people may stiffen as they age, mostly due to habits of posture, emotions, injury, surgery or through being less active. This contributes to the accumulation and the longer it is left, the greater it becomes. This is where massage comes in useful. A therapist can work manually to gradually loosen this fascial constriction so the surfaces can glide smoothly against each other again. Once loosened, it can be kept loose by ensuring regular movement of that area. So the need to exercise or simply move our bodies is essential to keep it free.
As an aromatherapist, I always use essential oils in my massage treatments unless the client prefers not to have them. Essential oils are the ‘essences’ of plants, usually extracted by steam distillation or by cold pressing. They each have therapeutic properties and can be useful for all sorts of conditions on their own. Combined with a massage the oils make a very powerful, synergistic treatment. Before a workout an oil like peppermint can enliven and stimulate the mind and body for the activity to follow. Warming oils like sweet marjoram or ginger can prepare the muscle for action. After a workout, cooling and anti-spasmodic oils like lavender, chamomile can calm and relieve aches or eliminative ones such as juniper berry can help to remove waste from muscles.
So, which massage should you have? If you are reluctant to remove clothing, then try a seated acupressure massage in which you remain fully clothed. It works on the back, neck, shoulders, head and can include arms and hands. It is usually a shorter treatment about 15 minutes or half an hour though extremely effective. It’s common for this type of massage to be used in the workplace, or at events but can be enjoyed by anyone. It is a useful alternative for anyone with mobility issues who would find it difficult climbing onto a massage table. Similarly Indian Head massage, working the head, neck and shoulders from a seated position is another option, or reflexology. This works all the body systems by stimulating reflex points on the feet (or hands). You might think, ‘that won’t ease my aching shoulders,’ but it is deeply relaxing and relaxation is the key to letting go of tension.
If you don’t mind removing clothing, then the muscles and soft tissues can be better manipulated in a Swedish or deep tissue massage. Deep tissue massage, as its name suggests, works deeper into the muscles of the legs, back, shoulder and arms. Its effective in relieving chronic pain, muscle spasm, helping with recovery from injury and improving range of motion. The therapist will use fists, knuckles and elbows to achieve a firmer pressure, though you can choose the degree that is comfortable for you.
Swedish massage is the most commonly known technique, it is gentler than deep tissue massage and often better suited to people interested in relaxation and tension relief, but it will also relieve muscle spasm and improve range of motion. It is worth mentioning that the therapist is always mindful of the client’s dignity and modesty and will only uncover the area of the body being worked on at any one time and you would always be expected to keep underwear on your lower half in any case. So if you choose a full body massage or one where you need to remove clothing, be assured that a good therapist will never let you feel uncomfortable and we are pretty skilled with our towel techniques!
If the idea of going to a salon or spa doesn’t appeal, then there are therapists, like me, who are mobile and will come to your home to carry out treatments. You don’t need a lot of space and you have the added benefit of not having to get up, dress and drive anywhere afterwards – I have one client who goes and has a snooze on her bed afterwards.
Something you might not know about massage is that it also boosts your immune system – something that’s very much needed right now. It does this by increasing the activity of the white blood cells that help our body fight infection. (4) Recent research from Cedars-Sinai, an academic healthcare organisation, finds that people who undergo even one session of massage experience significant changes in their immune and endocrine systems.(5) Massage therapy also promotes balance, heals physical and emotional injuries and promotes overall health and well-being. People report feeling lighter, freer in their bodies, relaxed and refreshed – almost like reset button.
So the next time you think massage is not for me, think again, maybe it is just the thing for you.
‘Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.’ Chinese Proverb
Calm Touch Therapies
Member of The Complementary Therapists Association, Member of the Academy of Onsite Massage, Associate Member of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists.
Helen has a mobile massage business covering areas of Greater Manchester bringing treatments to your home or workplace. She has an interest in dance, learning ballet as an adult, and has recently undertaken training on dance-related physiotherapy with Lisa Howell of the Ballet Blog to look at safe practice, enhancing technique and injury prevention. She has a degree in Dance having studied Dance & English at Roehampton University and during lockdown has gained certification in Progressing Ballet Technique.
1. Dr Melissa Leber of the Ican Schoolof Medicine at Mount Sinai
2. John Hopkins Medicine
5. Massage Magazine