How can massage therapy relieve my pain? Part 1

Ah…The ultimate question.  It is a complex, or at least multi-layered question to answer.  In many ways it depends totally on the approach of the particular practitioner you are asking, therefore I will respond generally and in sections:

  • Muscles and Fascia
  • The Nervous System
  • Emotional/Energetic Release

While all of these areas overlap at some point during your treatment, they are more easily understood separately at first.

Part 1:  Muscles and Fascia

First let’s consider the tissues we work on directly:  Skin, muscles, fascia (connective tissue) and joints.  Treatment massages often address all of these tissues because they all tend to be connected.  Most of us are familiar with all of them except fascia. Fascia is the web in which all of our cells are suspended. Made mostly of water and non-living collagen and elastin fibers, this web helps give muscles shape; connecting cells into bundles, bundles into muscle bellies, and extending beyond the edges of the muscle belly to make tendons which merge with our bones. These muscles get bound together into groups by another layer of fascia, and then our entire body gets a layer wrapped around it just under our skin.

These layers are designed to be slick but strong, giving each muscle the ability to slide easily along each other as we move. Unfortunately, these layers are acutely prone to dehydration, killing the slickness and leaving a sticky, fibrous mess instead. Once these layers get stuck to each other they are difficult to pull apart. These sticky places are called adhesions. I liken them to the two sides of Velcro; once the two sides come together you can no longer glide easily past one another. Each time you move the adhesions pull and tug and create sites of micro-inflammation which get sore over time.  Some of the “knots” you feel in your shoulders and neck are actually these stuck adhesions.  One aim of massage treatment is to “break up” these adhesions and allow circulation to return to these dehydrated layers to reduce the inflammation. Ahhhh, pain relief! I do warn you though, it isn’t always the most fun part of your treatment…imagine how Velcro might ‘feel’ as it’s being pulled apart. Yeah, it can feel kind of like that.  But since there is a layer of fascia just under the skin, even gentle Swedish massage techniques can bring a great amount of relief.

Thicker bands of fascia also connect bones to each other to make our joints. These bands are called ligaments. Ligaments lack the elasticity of the thinner layers that surround our muscle fibers as well as the abundant blood flow. When they get irritated or overstretched there is less opportunity for a healing response. They shrink and tighten to reduce the irritating movement and that can cause nerve pain and inflammation in surrounding tissues. Treatment massage can help reduce the inflammation and lengthen the ligament fibers to create more space within the joint, effectively releasing trapped nerves and increasing circulation to the joint. Ahhhh, pain relief!

When considering muscles, you cannot separate them from either the fascia or the nervous system. Nerves transmit information to and from the muscles, instructing them to contract or relax. Our joints move when muscles contract only because fascia transfers that force to our bones. There are a number of neurological sensors and influences that we will discuss later, relative to the nervous system. For now we will focus more on the muscle fibers themselves.
 When muscle bellies bear more weight than they can tolerate or are stretched beyond their maximum length, they usually tear.  In bodywork we call this a strain. These tears can be microscopic or they can be a large rupture across the entire belly or tendon. Either way, inflammation happens and pain along with it. Massage treatment can help keep the circulation in the area flowing to reduce painful swelling and promote healing. Sometimes a muscle will try to protect itself from this tearing by contracting very quickly and very strongly…so strongly it can’t relax completely on its own. This is what we call a spasm, or what you may have experienced as a charlie-horse. Sometimes they are very painful as the entire muscle belly remains contracted, while other times only a small bundle of fibers remains tight. These smaller contractions still hurt, but tend to be a bit more subtle at first, turning into nagging tension and soreness. This is another expression of those “knots” we all are familiar with. Massage treatment uses pressure to spread out and lengthen muscle bundles to release the contraction and return the muscle to its resting tone.  Ahhhh, pain relief!

These adhesions, tears and spasms are not always caused by trauma or obvious injury. At times just our everyday posture creates patterns that strain muscles beyond there tolerance and create adhesions between fascial layers. Massage treatments over time aim to reduce not only individual injuries and adhesions, but to correct and promote the overall postures that are the underlying cause of much chronic pain. Of course, in these cases, strength (or lack thereof) is usually complicit. A strengthening regimen will need to be customized for you to bring balance back to your posture….Good think you know a good Yoga Therapist 🙂

Check back for Parts 2 & 3 later this month!

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