How Can Massage Relieve My Pain? PART 2

Welcome back!

Part 2:  The Nervous System

In this section we will examine the nervous system in greater detail and how massage treatment affects pain through it.  The nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord and all the peripheral nerves that go to the muscles, organs and skin.  The nervous system uses hormones and electrochemicals to turn stimulation into sensation and act through movement of muscles and other tissues.  If it happens in the human body, the nervous system is involved at some point.

When we consider the nervous system in bodywork, we recognize two things:  first, that we feel pain because a part of our brain tells us we do…through the use of hormones, it is the modulator of sensation; second, that we feel things because our nerve-endings have sent sensory information to our brain via the spinal cord, our brain makes sense of it, and instructs our muscles to react based on that information.  In certain cases however, the brain is taken out of the equation:  we call this a “reflex”.  We have a few reflexes already pre-programmed into our muscles so that when certain stimuli is experienced, the signal goes to the spinal cord and speeds directly back to the muscle as action.  This is a part of the “fight or flight” mechanism; our body’s way of removing itself from a potentially painful event.   Certain parts of the brain eventually get clued into what has gone on during a reflex reaction and records it, a bit like an external hard drive for your computer.

One such reflex is the “stretch reflex”.  When a muscle is stretched too far, too fast, the stretch reflex causes the muscle to contract very quickly to protect itself from tearing.   Another is called the “GTO response”.   This is roughly the opposite of the stretch reflex; when a muscle bares too much tension, the GTO response causes the muscle to relax all contraction to protect itself from spasm or strain.  Over time these reflexes can make patterned imprints on the brain (that external hard drive), leading to what is typically called “muscle memory”.  Some massage techniques work directly with these reflexes to help reduce painful spasms, increase the length and pliability of muscle tissue, and reset the memory of a particular muscle or group of muscles.  Ahhh, pain relief!

We should also consider “gate theory” when speaking about the nervous system and pain relief.   Gate theory states that the nerve signal for pressure sensations are faster and stronger than the nerve signals for pain sensation. That is a handy revelation when most massage treatments employ the application of pressure at some point.  If you apply pressure to tissue that is in pain, the pressure signal “beats the pain signal to the gate”, and the brain only acknowledges the pressure sensation.  Ahhh, pain relief!  This may be why we instinctively press on an injury…the pain of a bump, a scrape or even a cut will benefit, at least temporarily, from immediate applied-pressure.

Because the brain uses hormonal information in feeling various sensations, we try to use that to our advantage in bodywork.  Part of what makes a massage such a relaxing experience is that our brain turns off the “fight or flight” response of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)–a condition where our brain and body are flooded with stress chemicals such as adrenalin and epinephrine–and turns on the “relaxation response”.  This Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the part of the nervous system that allows the body to recover and heal after high-stress events.   When we massage the skin, muscles and organs, the PNS signals the brain to turn off adrenalin production and increase the production of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin–our on-board supply of pain killers and euphorics.  Our brain slows down our breathing, increases our healing and rebuilding processes, and gives us the sensation of rest and comfort.  Our nerves relax and slow the flow of information and the perception of pain is reduced.  Ahhh, pain relief!

Ultimately, as the communication network between our outer and inner worlds, the nervous system is the key focus in any pain relief treatment. Massage and bodywork can address it very generally in the case of parasympathetic stimulation, or directly when utilizing specific reflexes and circulatory functions.  Over time, regular massage treatment can help inprint the brain with a higher tolerance for painful stimuli and keep the Sympathetic Nervous Response to a minimum.

Check back soon for the last installment in this series: Energetic and Emotional Release.


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