Massage for Chronic Pain
Massage isn’t just for pampering: It can provide great relief for people who suffer from chronic back or neck pain or a long-term illness.
Massage for chronic pain works by interrupting the cycle of chronic pain. When you have pain in a certain area of the body, the muscles tighten around that area to “protect” it, mobility is limited, and often, circulation is reduced. Additionally, pain that began with an injury or illness can cause emotional and psychological stress that exacerbates the pain and even remains after the physical condition has healed.
Massage for chronic pain restores mobility by loosening tight muscles and trigger points and by lengthening muscles. Massage also improves circulation by increasing blood flow, as well as promotes relaxation and helps relieve emotional stress and anxiety that can contribute to chronic pain.
How Can Massage Help with Chronic Pain?
Massage is a manual therapy that uses hands-on manipulation of the muscles and other soft tissues. Massage has been shown to help hospitalized patients manage chronic pain and relieve anxiety. In a July, 2008 study of 101 hospitalized patients with moderate-to-severe pain, those who received a 15-minute head, neck, and shoulder massage from a nurse reported significantly less pain and anxiety than those in a control group – both immediately after and one hour post-treatment.
Massage also helps manage chronic pain by increasing energy and improving sleep. Collectively, these benefits of massage for chronic pain can help you get back to your regular routine faster, as well as provide the motivation you need to practice the prescribed rehabilitation exercises and return to a regular exercise program.
There are many types of massage that can help relieve chronic pain. Deep massage techniques, including deep-tissue massage, shiatsu and trigger point therapy, can help release deep muscle knots, scar tissue, and muscle spasms that cause chronic pain. With deep-tissue massage, the massage therapist applies firm pressure to the deep muscles and connective tissue to relieve sources of chronic pain. Trigger point therapy involves the application of steady pressure on specific areas or “trigger points” to release muscle spasms. Shiatsu is a Japanese massage technique in which the practitioner firmly and deeply presses certain areas on the body, called acupressure points, to adjust the flow of energy (“Ki”) in the body; balancing the flow of energy stops pain.
Therapeutic massage techniques, such as Swedish massage, involve gentle kneading of the surface muscle tissues. Although these techniques are helpful in reducing muscle tension and emotional stress, they are not effective for long-term chronic pain management.
To relieve chronic pain, you will need to receive massage treatments regularly, and you may not begin to experience relief until after you’ve had several massage treatments. Your massage therapist can recommend the frequency of massage sessions to provide the most effective relief of chronic pain. In addition, massage therapy works best when it’s part of a complete treatment program that includes other therapies such as chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.
What Causes Chronic Pain?
The causes of chronic pain are as numerous as they are complex, originating primarily from physical disease and injury. Long-term illnesses including cancer, degenerative conditions associated with aging, central nervous system damage, inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, vascular conditions that reduce blood flow to certain parts of the body, trauma, and postural or overuse injuries, are all sources of chronic pain.
If you have chronic pain, your doctor should perform a thorough medical examination to rule out serious structural or physiological disorders. X-rays and MRIs can help your doctor identify the source of the pain and plan the best course of treatment.
It is important to seek immediate medical attention if your pain is severe or if fever, dizziness, weakness, or any unusual symptoms occur along with the pain.
Helpful Tips for Managing Chronic Pain
Chronic pain can be debilitating, not only limiting a person’s ability to participate in activities of daily living but also contributing to emotional stress and depression.
Here are some tips for managing chronic pain:
- Seek an experienced certified massage therapist for treatment: It is important to seek treatment from a certified massage therapist who can assess your condition and recommend the massage techniques that are right for you. If you see a specialist for your pain condition, ask for massage therapist referrals.
- Maintain good posture to help relieve chronic back or neck pain: Try to always maintain a natural aligned spinal position when sitting, standing, and walking. Consider a lumbar support cushion for your car seat or desk chair. If your job requires repetitive tasks such as holding a telephone between your shoulder and ear, or if you are frequently in the same position at your job, such as sitting at the computer, take breaks and stretch your muscles. Also, make sure your neck and back are properly positioned during sleep—don’t sleep on your stomach and avoid positions that abnormally flex your neck. Often a worn-out pillow or mattress can contribute to pain.
- Exercise regularly and practice strengthening exercises: Regular exercise is helpful to improve posture, maintain flexibility, increase strength, and reduce pain. A physical therapist can recommend specific stretching and strengthening exercises to decrease pain. When performed correctly, yoga can be an excellent method to both stretch and strengthen the body to relieve chronic pain.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Utilizing deep breathing, guided imagery, and other relaxation techniques can help manage chronic pain by reducing tension and producing a calming effect on the body and mind.
Several organizations specialize in providing information about chronic pain, including the American Chronic Pain Association, National Pain Foundation, American Pain Society, and American Pain Foundation.
The American Pain Foundation offers several online publications that you can view online or download for more information about managing chronic pain.
“Massage Therapy as CAM,” published by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (May 27, 2008), provides a helpful overview on massage and its benefits.
Seers, K et al. A randomised controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of a single session of nurse administered massage for short term relief of chronic non-malignant pain. BMC Nursing, July 2008. 7(1):10-19.