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Massage Therapy: Demystifying the Various Arts of Healing Touch

by Ellen Lovinger Eller


Since ancient times, people have used massage to ease pain and promote relaxation…to help them tune-in to their bodies, release stress and stay healthy.

Through the centuries, massage practitioners have developed countless techniques for focusing their touch—variations that not only alleviate physical aches and pains, but also emotional/mental distresses, such as depression and insomnia. Today, massage therapy is also used to improve the function of the body’s immune system and enhance conditioning for exercise and daily activities.

For people seeking any of those benefits, there are many types of massage available, including therapies derived from the healing wisdom of many different cultures…

Swedish Massage

Swedish Massage is the classic "spa treatment," wonderful for relaxing muscles; increasing range of motion; relieving pain from tension, sprains, pinched nerves and stiffness; shortening recovery time from injuries; reducing emotional and physical stress—to name just a few of the benefits.

Generally, people receiving Swedish Massage are nude beneath a sheet (but keep your underwear on, if you prefer). The therapist uncovers the area he/she is working on, using hand-warmed oil or lotion to facilitate manipulation, stimulating your metabolism and circulation. Swedish Massage covers all the major muscle groups, even when only a part of the body is worked on.

Your therapist may use various techniques, including "Effleurage," long, flowing strokes along your body’s outer contours; "Pinpoint Pressure," focusing on areas that are painful to the touch, bunched up or especially hard; "Deep Friction," small, circular strokes that press below the skin, into the muscles; and "Tapotement," when the therapist’s hands are in a "karate chop" position as he/she rhythmically taps on your body.

Versatility is the reason Swedish Massage is the foundation for such specialties as Sports Massage, Prenatal Massage and Aromatherapy Massage.

Tui Na

Tui Na (or Tuina), a form of bodywork therapy used in China for 2,000 years, is based on the flow of chi, or energy, through the meridians. By establishing a more harmonious flow, the Tui Na practitioner helps the body heal itself.

There are a variety of Tui Na systems in China, among them: the rolling method, emphasizing soft-tissue techniques for joint injuries and muscle sprains; the one-finger pushing method, focusing on acupressure and the treatment of internal diseases; Nei Gung, wherein energy-generation exercises and specific massage methods revitalize depleted energy; and the bone-setting method, emphasizing manipu-lation to realign muscles, bones and ligaments to ease joint injuries and nerve pain.

Assessing the patient’s condition, a Tui Na practitioner chooses the proper treatment, zeroing in on pain sites, acupressure points, meridians and the alignment of muscles and joints. He/she may also use herbal poultices, compresses and salves to speed and enhance healing.

Expect your session to last from 30 minutes to an hour…and expect to feel relaxed but energized by the treatment.

Shiatsu

Japanese Shiatsu Massage also regards disease as the result of chi that is blocked, depleted or overabundant. The aim of Shiatsu is to restore the natural balance and replenish the healthy flow of energy.

"Shiatsu" means "finger pressure," but practitioners will use thumbs, knuckles, palms, elbows, knees and feet, as well as fingers, to stretch and pressure acupuncture points along your body’s meridians—the channels through which energy flows. By pressing key points, the Shiatsu masseuse strengthens vital organs to treat complaints ranging from anxiety to arthritis.

But Shiatsu differs from deep-tissue massage in that it involves deep breathing, the rotation and stretching of joints, as well as pressure-point manipulation. When those points are pressed, people describe the sensation as a tickling or tenderness ranging from slightly uncomfortable to intense.

Because Shiatsu works on the whole being, physical and spiritual, you may experience powerful reactions during and after treatment, such as tears or laughter, as the body breaks through old energy patterns.

Head Massage

Rooted in classical Indian Ayurveda, Head Massage reflects a rich cultural legacy—a tradition that creates profound bonds between Hindu mothers and children…a regular service in barbershops, where men enjoy Head Massage with their morning shave.

Head Massage stimulates the body’s innate healing power and slows the progress of troublesome conditions. It is said to affect every system in the body by adjusting the individual’s prana, or life force, and bringing the chakras into balance.

A typical Head Massage involves more than the head. It often begins with the upper back, moving to the shoulders, arms and hands, up the neck to the scalp, and finally to the face and ears, with the therapist employing specialized movements to release stagnant energy.

Oils like sweet almond or olive are commonly used, and your therapist may also use essential oils such as bergamot, lavender and tea tree.

Many clients say that after a Head Massage they feel as if they’ve had a full-body massage. So savor the experience.

Thai Massage

A blend of Indian Ayurvedic principles and traditional Chinese medicine, the 2,500-year-old system of Thai Massage can be somewhat rigorous. It is sometimes called Thai Yoga Massage because the therapist uses hands, knees, legs and feet to move you into yoga-like stretches.

Your Thai Massage will probably be done on a padded mat on the floor. No oil is applied, so you will be fully dressed (wear loose, comfortable clothing) for a treatment that may involve muscle compression, joint mobilization and acupressure.

Most people find Thai Massage relaxing and energizing—excellent for reducing stress, improving circulation, increasing flexibility, improving range of motion, and centering the mind and the body.

Hot Stone Massage

The healing power of Hot Stone Massage has been known for centuries. It is wonderful for conditions such as back pain, poor circulation and osteoarthritis, and ideal for people who often feel chilly, as well as those who simply prefer a lighter touch. As the stones’ heat relaxes the body, it enables the therapist to work the muscles without using deep pressure.

Practitioners generally begin by applying oil to your skin so the flat, smooth stones glide easily. The stones, immersed in water in an electrical heater, are brought to a comfortable temperature (if you feel they are too hot, speak up!) and placed on key points on your body, in the palms of your hands, perhaps, or between your toes. Or, holding the stones, your therapist may use them to massage you. In some cases, especially if there is inflammation, he/she might incorporate cool stones into the treatment.

At some point, the therapist may remove the stones and use his/her hands to massage your skin directly, then put hot stones back onto your body and leave them for a while—letting you experience the full benefit of the session.

Sports Massage

Sports Massage was developed to help athletes prepare for optimal performance, recover after events, and function well during training, but you needn’t be an athlete to reap such rewards. Anyone who pushes his/her physical limits, whether through running, cycling, hiking, swimming, dancing, strength training or aerobics, can benefit from Sports Massage. In fact, it’s great for folks whose activities aren’t normally considered exercise—like gardeners, mothers with small children, and construction workers.

Sports Massage frequently includes Swedish Massage techniques as well as elements of Compression Massage (the rhythmic compression of muscles to "soften" the tissues), Cross-Fiber Massage (friction techniques to create a stretching, broadening effect in large muscle groups), and Trigger Point Massage (which combines positioning and finger/thumb pressure into tender points in muscle and connective tissue to reduce hypersensitivity, spasms and pain).

Sports Massage can reduce your chance of injury, improve range of motion and flexibility, maximize the body’s supply of oxygen through increased blood flow, and enhance the elimination of the metabolic byproducts of exercise.

In other words, Sports Massage can help you stay in shape, avoid stiffness and soreness, and recover quickly from your toughest physical challenges—whatever they may be.

Chair Massage

If you work in an office, a simple Chair Massage can give you relief from such uncomfortable facts of life as stiff neck, tight shoulders and aching hands and wrists.

Most of these symptoms are caused by poor circulation. Muscles tightened by sitting at a desk all day can impede the flow of blood and lymph through the body, leaving workers mentally and physically drained, and susceptible to repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Chair Massage not only counters the circulatory problems inherent in office work, but also gives employees a welcome break as it enhances the body’s ability to heal itself. Sitting in a massage chair opens up the back muscles, relieves strain on the neck and provides a respite for eyes that spend hours glued to a computer monitor. Even a 15-minute Chair Massage can increase your energy levels and help keep your body pain free.

Of course, even if you’re not an office worker, you can enjoy Chair Massage. Try one at a country fair or shopping mall. It’s neat, convenient… and it feels great!

Aromatherapy Massage

Your sense of smell is linked to the brain’s limbic system, which influences the emotions, nervous system and hormones. When you inhale essential oil molecules—the highly concentrated plant oils used in Aromatherapy Massage—messages transmitted to the brain affect your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, digestion and immune system.

Aromatherapy Massage is particularly suited to conditions involving stress or emotionally based distress: insomnia, headache, digestive disorders, PMS and back pain.

After an initial consultation to determine your needs, the therapist will select one or more essential oils to mix with oil or lotion, so the subtle aromas fill the air as he/she utilizes Swedish Massage techniques.

Each essential oil has different healing properties. For instance, chamomile and lavender have a calming effect; rose and sage are uplifting; rosemary is cleansing and energizing; eucalyptus and tea tree oil relieve congestion.

And feel free to ask your Aromatherapy Massage therapist for a blend of essential oils you can use at home, between sessions.

Pregnancy Massage

Just about every pregnant woman deserves the benefits, and pleasures, of Prenatal Massage Therapy.

Recent studies have shown that hormone levels associated with relaxation and stress are significantly altered when pregnant women receive massage. The changes resulted in improved mood and cardiovascular health, fewer complications during birth and fewer problems, like low birth weight, in newborns.

Massage stimulates soft tissues to reduce the collection of fluids in joints. It soothes inflamed nerves, alleviating conditions such as the sciatic pain many women experience when the uterus rests on the muscles of the pelvic floor and lower back. It enhances the pliability of your skin and underlying tissues, making it easier for you to "get your body back" after the birth. It can even help you sleep better!

Pregnancy Massage differs from other forms in several ways, and it’s vital that you find a certified prenatal massage therapist with special training. Because positioning during massage is critical to the safety and well-being of mother and baby, the therapist must be knowledgeable about pregnancy… pressure points that can stimulate pelvic muscles, including the uterus…and what areas should not be massaged.

Although the benefits of Pregnancy Massage are abundant, consult your obstetrician or midwife before beginning therapy, particularly if yours is a high-risk pregnancy—if you’re suffering from hypertension, for example, or preeclampsia.

Also, ask your massage therapist about ways your partner can give you comfort "when push comes to shove"—techniques that will really help during labor.

Is Massage for You?

For most of us, there’s nothing like a great massage, but that’s not true for everyone. Massage is not for people who have an infectious skin disease, rash or open wound, or those who just had surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, or who suffer from heart disease. Massage should not be done directly over bruises, inflamed skin, tumors or areas of recent fractures.

If you’re uncertain, talk to your health care provider…a trusted friend or family member…or a recommended massage therapist—and see which healing touch is right for you.

Ellen Lovinger Eller is a free-lance writer and editor living with her husband, Michael and daughter, Emily in Shelburne Falls, MA.


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