Massage for Digestive Disorders

Digestive disorders can be painful and unpleasant. Poor eating habits and stress contribute to digestive disorders and can interfere with the normal function of the digestive system. Massage is one complementary therapy that can help relieve stress, as well as the pain and discomfort associated with certain digestive disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and chronic constipation.

How Can Massage Help Digestive Disorders?

Massage is a hands-on therapy that manipulates the muscles and other soft tissues. Massage therapists use touch to locate painful or tense areas, to determine how much pressure to apply, and to establish a therapeutic relationship with the patient. To treat digestive disorders, massage therapists apply gentle manual pressure to the outside of the abdomen to feel the internal structures of the colon and small intestine. In some cases, the massage therapist may be able to feel an area in the digestive tract that is congested. Massaging the affected area can help stimulate the spontaneous movement of the digestive tract (a process called peristalsis) and reduce symptoms such as cramping, bloating, gas, and constipation. Abdominal massage may help remove masses that have become trapped within diverticula, or outpouchings of the intestinal wall. The application of heat or ice can be used along with gentle massage to stimulate the bowel or to reduce swelling.

Massage can also be used to relieve anxiety and tension that often worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, abdominal massage should not be used during an acute IBS flare-up as it can aggravate symptoms. Neck, shoulder, back, and leg massages are helpful in reducing tension and can be performed during an IBS flare-up without complications.

Massage can be used during periods of remission for patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease to manage chronic pain, but it should also not be used during an active flare-up of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease as it can exacerbate the pain and increase the risk of intestinal perforation.

How Can Massage Help After Procedures to Diagnose or Treat Digestive Disorders?

For patients undergoing a colonoscopy procedure, abdominal massage is helpful immediately after the procedure to eliminate the air that was used to inflate the colon during the examination. Massage has also been shown to help patients after colectomy surgery, in which all or part of the colon (also called the large intestine) is removed. One study showed that massage of the abdomen decreased postoperative pain and ileus (obstruction of the intestine due to it being paralyzed from surgery).

What Massage Techniques Are Used for Digestive Disorders?

A combination of massage techniques performed by an experienced massage therapist can provide relief, including:

Swedish Massage: Long strokes and gentle kneading movements applied to the surface muscles to help release muscle tension. Swedish massage practitioners suggest that this type of massage can help the body deliver nutrients and remove waste products from various tissues.

Deep Tissue Massage: Applied pressure to the deeper muscles and connective tissues that is focused on releasing adhesions (“knots”) or scar tissue. It may be performed along with Swedish massage.

Trigger Point Massage: Steady pressure is applied to targeted areas to release abdominal muscle spasms and promote blood flow to the area to aid healing.

Shiatsu: Aform of Japanese massage in which the practitioner uses his or her body weight to apply rhythmic pressure to acupressure points in order to feel and simultaneously adjust the flow of energy ("Ki") through the meridians in your body.

What Are Digestive Disorders?

Digestive disorders include more than 40 acute and chronic conditions of the gastrointestinal tract, ranging from common ailments such as indigestion and flatulence (gas) to serious, life-threatening diseases, such as colorectal cancer. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), an estimated 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.

When to Get Help for Digestive Disorders

Talk to your doctor if you have recurrent abdominal discomfort or severe abdominal pain, a persistent change in bowel habits, blood in the stool, unintended weight loss, or heartburn that is not relieved by antacids. Stool tests and imaging tests may be performed to diagnose your condition and rule out medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.

Finding a Massage Therapist

It is important to seek treatment from a qualified massage therapist who can assess your condition and recommend the type of massage that will help relieve your digestive disease symptoms. Most states regulate the massage therapy profession in the form of a license, registration, or certification.

Additional Resources
American Gastrointestinal Association

Holt, Stephen, ed. Natural Ways to Digestive Health: Interfaces Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine, 2000. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc. ISBN-10: 0871319098.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Yarze J.A Simple Method For "Spontaneous" Colon Decompression During Colonoscopy. Am J Gastroenterol. 2007;102:S518.

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