Few things are as distressing as chronic pain. It saps your energy and takes an emotional toll. Over time, pain can become a vicious cycle with a life of its own, sometimes persisting even after the original cause is resolved.
Massage is one of the most overlooked, yet accessible supportive measures you can seek for chronic pain relief. Dr. Ronald Melzack, a pioneer of modern pain research, introduces his own discussion of massage with these words:
"Almost all societies [use] mechanical pressure to relieve pain. There is not one of us who does not stretch an aching back or rub an area that hurts. These are our own, almost instinctive, maneuvers which have developed into various anti-pain procedures."
THE PAIN CYCLE
The pain cycle is a complex chain of events which reinforce each other. It often begins with injury or illness, but each element, especially stress, can add to or even start the cycle. Massage is unique in addressing most of the pain cycle elements.
You perceive pain when your body releases chemicals that stimulate nerves to send pain messages to the brain. These are difficult, and dangerous, to ignore.
Always look for and treat the cause of your pain. At the same time, you can use massage to directly affect how you experience chronic, persistent pain. Research suggests that massage stimulates release of natural pain-relievers such as endorphins. It can also reduce the devastating grip of pain as you focus on the pleasant sensation of relaxation.
Muscles automatically contract around any painful site to support and protect the area. If pain is resolved quickly, muscles relax. If pain persists muscles can become habitually contracted. Sometimes contractions press on nerves causing tingling, numbness, and more pain.
Massage helps by stretching tight muscles and by stimulating the nervous system to relax muscle tension.
Like a sponge that is squeezed, a contracted muscle can’t hold much fluid. Tight muscles reduce circulation, allowing waste products from inflammation and normal muscle function to accumulate. This can leave you feeling fatigued and sore, reducing your energy reserves. It can also irritate nerves, causing pain to spread throughout the tense area.
Massage releases contracted muscles and pushes circulation toward the heart. Also, as massage relaxes the nervous system, blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow. Waste products are flushed away and replaced with healing oxygen and nutrients.
Over time, areas with poor circulation form trigger points highly irritable spots that refer pain, tingling or other sensations elsewhere in the body, usually in a predictable pattern. As muscles tense around referred pain, the pain cycle spreads. Trigger points respond well to standard massage techniques such as sustained pressure, ice massage, and muscle stretching. Trigger points in this context are not the same as trigger points deliberately stimulated in acupressure or shiatsu.
Eventually, the body lays down connective tissue throughout any contracted area with poor circulation. While helpful for healing injuries, this natural reaction can glue muscles and their connective tissue coverings into a shortened state. Massage increases circulation, rehydrating and softening connective tissue so it can be lengthened by stretching and kneading.
Irritating waste products, painful trigger points, and shortened muscles make even simple actions difficult and tiring. As your capacity for movement and exercise decreases, you lose the most important means for maintaining good circulation throughout your body, risking pain in new areas.
Massage helps restore normal movement by releasing trigger points, removing waste products, and stretching shortened muscles. In addition, because you feel better after a massage, you may discover renewed energy and motivation for physical activity.
Stress and Pain:
Our physical reactions to stress reflect how we evolved in prehistoric times. Muscles tense for action and circulation decreases to areas not needed to fight or run. This helped cavemen survive the saber-toothed tiger, but unfortunately does not help with modern stresses such as family conflicts, work deadlines, or money worries. When stress is unrelieved, our bodies tense further into an anxious, irritable posture. Stress induced muscle tension and impaired circulation can and do contribute directly to the pain cycle.
To make matters worse, chronic pain itself is a major source of stress. It drains you emotionally, robbing you of the patience and stamina you need to get you through a day. It interrupts your sleep, leaving you tired and irritable. You worry about its cause and if you will ever get better. As pain makes normal activity difficult, your anxiety increases. Will you be able to keep working? Where will you get the money for treatment? Will you become dependent on others?
Massage and Stress:
Massage acts on the nervous system to counteract the body's response to stress, relaxing muscle tension and allowing heart rate, blood pressure and circulation to return toward normal. Many people sleep better after a massage, which helps the body heal and renews emotional reserves. To the extent that massage relieves pain, even temporarily, it reduces stress by giving you some control over your situation. A massage also helps you become aware of unconsciously held tension, and how it feels to relax. This helps you recognize and release tension later, before it creates a problem.
Finally, allowing someone else to give you the care and comfort of a relaxing massage can give you much needed emotional support in time of stress.