Grandma's hands were strong enough to give Grandpa a good backrub when he came home from welding at the locomotive yard. I guess you could say that the power of her touch kept the railroad going. Backrubs have come a long way since the 1950's and so has massage therapy.
Since January of 1997, massage therapy has been a licensed, professional health service in Alabama, and terms like masseur, masseuse, and massage parlor have been officially replaced with massage therapist and massage establishment in Alabama's laws.
Massage therapy can be described as the intentional and systematic assessment and manipulation of the soft tissues of the human body to enhance health, healing, and well-being. The massage therapist most commonly uses his or her hands to work the tissues underlying the skin, although certain techniques require the use of the forearm or elbow.
The benefits of massage therapy have been researched and published for years, and this scientific process continues. In the last twenty years, medical schools and hospitals all over the country have started to investigate the therapeutic benefits of massage therapy and incorporate massage into pain management and wellness programs because of its positive benefits.
Each person will benefit physiologically and psychologically from massage therapy, but may not always consciously perceive the changes immediately. However, if you've ever had a therapeutic massage you should be able to recognize some of the following ways that the body responds to the therapy.
Due to the force exerted on the tissues beneath the skin, massage tends to speed the flow of tissue fluid, venous blood, and lymph toward the heart. Since these fluids carry metabolic by-products and wastes, these compounds are returned more quickly to arterial circulation where they can be recycled by the body for other metabolic reactions or eliminated from the blood stream by the filtering processes of the kidneys or by the numerous activities of the liver.
The nervous system also responds to massage in a variety of ways that can be very beneficial. One of the most dramatic examples involves the part of our nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, that controls many involuntary responses, such as our heart beat. During a massage, the body's parasympathetic responses can include a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate. When these three values decrease together, the body is going through a classic "relaxation response". This "state of being" is in marked contrast to the body's sympathetic nervous system response which is often referred to as our "fight or flight" response. This fight mechanism is driven by the biological chemical adrenalin (epinephrine) which causes the body to be "on edge" and ready for any emergency.
Skeletal muscle relaxation is enhanced by the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system via compressive massage techniques. Our muscles and their tendons contain sensory units that let us know, consciously and subconsciously, if a muscle is tight or relaxed. Through various massage techniques, muscles are encouraged to lengthen and move toward a resting state. This state provides for a greater range of motion in the limbs and neck, and moves the body toward a more relaxed posture.
The parasympathetic state also compliments digestion and elimination. Through abdominal massage, the transit time of ingested food can be accelerated because peristalsis, the rhythmic contractions of our digestive tract, tends to increase. This activation of the smooth muscles in the digestive tract often helps people who are constipated.
For people suffering from chronic disorders, such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, neck and back disc problems, or MS, massage therapy is very helpful in combating pain, joint immobility, and muscle tension. For these and other disorders, the art of the therapy is in the application of the most appropriate techniques for each person's unique condition.
Besides the benefits associated with specific body systems or disorders, therapeutic massage can have a dramatic impact on a person's outlook on life. Even though these effects are subjective, their importance cannot be denied. The most common subjective benefits voiced by those who receive massages on a regular basis are: increased body awareness, enhanced mental clarity, and a general sense of calm well-being. For many, these subjective benefits are the cornerstones for a new way of living...for a new way of "feeling good" regardless of the stresses that life presents, or the daily discomforts of the body. To paraphrase an old ad campaign...Massage...it Does a Body Good!!
For more information regarding past and current research on massage therapy and specific disorders, go to the miami.edu web sites listed on my WebLinks Page.
As a footnote to this description of benefits, I want to briefly discuss the idea that massage therapy helps to " remove toxins from the body ". From my point of view, this statement is erroneous. By definition, a toxin is typically a short-lived, protein or protein-like molecule that is foreign to the body, and thus causes the body to produce anti-bodies. Bee stings and poisons made by bacterial cells are classic examples of toxins. Therefore, lactic acid should not be considered a toxin. It is simply a by-product of anaerobic (no oxygen) cellular respiration in muscles. Lactic acid can be used directly by the brain and liver cells as an energy source, or recycled back to glucose for muscle energy. The lingering presence of lactic acid in muscle tissue can cause muscle soreness after a good workout; this soreness is, typically, short lived because the body will use lactic acid immediately or recycle it within about 24 hours. Similarly, carbon dioxide is not a toxin. It is the by-product of aerobic (with oxygen) muscle activity that is exhaled and is an essential molecule in the formation of glucose by plants via photosynthesis.
On the other hand, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in its historic "body burden" research, the average human body in the US contains greater than 100 exogenous chemicals. These manufactured compounds are found in consumables (processed foods, drinks, meats, vegetables, etc.), personal care products (lotions, soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, toothpastes, etc.), and in the air we breathe and the water we drink (metals, pesticides, herbicides, etc.). Therefore, this array of chemicals is not generated by our bodies, but is introduced to the body each and every day. Some of these foreign chemicals may be toxic by themselves, or in conjunction with other exogenous compounds.
Regardless of their possible toxic nature, none of these are toxins, by definition. Therefore, this large set of exogenous compounds, that each of us carries around inside, may be moved around by the compressive forces of massage, but there is no scientific research that suggests that massage can reduce the "body burden".
Michael D. Hudgins 1999, 2003, 2008, 2013