Updated: May 12, 2021
We know that massage therapy reduces pain, but how?
Our nervous system is a complex one. For the purposes of this post, and frankly, my minimal understanding of the processes, I am going to keep this simple and bite-sized.
Have you ever stubbed your toe? I'm sure you have. You can't be a human person and never have accidentally slammed your toe into a wall, piece of furniture, or deceptively high step. Reflexively you might begin to rub your toe. There is a reason for that. Adding sensory input has a chance to change the output. In this case adding the stimulus of our hands rubbing the stubbed toe might change the intensity or quality of the pain. Our brain is receiving competing messages. Based on many variables, your brain can choose to turn up, or turn down pain. There are a lot of factors your brain will take into account including stress, feelings, and even past experiences. However, that's a whole other post regarding the science of pain, and the biological, psychological, and social factors.
So, you might see how massage therapy fits nicely into pain management. Why not get a whole body rub-down and turn down that pain signal? You're on the right track. Coming to a safe, comfortable environment to receive professional, and caring touch can make a world of difference for your brain. Because we know all of the factors that can play into turning up, or turning down pain, the context and massage environment should be conducive for maximum effectiveness.
Here are some more cool tidbits: Your brain has your body mapped out. Like a virtual version of your physical body. We call that part of that proprioception. Or, awareness of the position/movement of the body. When you receive touch your brain begins to receive different and new information. This may begin the process of making some changes to that map. Maybe it made a mistake and needs to white-out some things and re-draw that part of the map. A clearer, less fuzzy, and more friendly map theoretically can replace the old one.
But the really cool part is the cascading effect and benefits of that massage. Motion is lotion. Movement is the most important thing for your body and pain management. Massage can make pain more manageable, and movement easier, leading to increased confidence and resilience. How cool is that? As a massage therapist I think massage is important, but I'm humble enough to admit it's not everything. The most important part of pain management, and health in general is moving, moving in a variety of ways, and moving often.
Good movement takes practice and you will not change overnight. Consistency is key. There are 168 hours in a week and if you spend 1 hour getting a massage, and 5 hours in the gym, that leaves 162 hours of potentially doing the same things that got you into pain in the first place.
So use massage therapy as a tool. It's not the only answer, and it may not even be the best answer. I may be a little biased, but I certainly think it's one of the better, and safer options for pain management.