By Teresa Eisenlohr
I have lived with chronic pain for over 30 years. It sucks. It’s also what led me to massage, though. Although I have seen a chiropractor regularly since I sailed down a whole flight of icy metal steps on my tailbone at age 20, I thought massage was something rich ladies of leisure do as part of spa beauty rituals. Not until I saw a chiropractor who is also a massage therapist did I come to understand that massage is not a luxury, but a therapy vital for the management of chronic pain. (Thank you, Dr. Beatriz Hoyos!)
Serious scientific studies like this one consistently show that massage doesn’t just help with the acute pain of an injury; it also helps manage chronic pain. Of course massage works with our muscles and joints to get them functioning better, and this lessens the pain as we reeducate our muscles and reset the normal tonicity so that they're not in spasm. But massage also changes our bodies at a cellular level. It does this by regulating various substances in our body that can cause chronic problems. For instance, massage decreases cortisol, a stress hormone that causes fat storage in the event of some kind of perceived threat of a hunger apocalypse. Chronic inflammation, a culprit contributing to heart disease, cancer, dementia, as well as chronic pain, is associated with an excess of cytokines, a protein that massage reduces in our bloodstream in as little as 45 minutes on the massage table. At the same time, massage also increases the number of lymphocytes in our immune system, which respond to a specific threat, such as a virus or bacterial infection that can be a hidden cause of chronic pain.
Of course, most of us don’t need a scientist to tell us what those of us who get regular massage know: it helps us feel better. Especially those of us who live with chronic pain.
There's another less obvious benefit of massage for those in chronic pain. It helps us get reconnected with our bodies. Paradoxically, pain can cause us to lose touch with our bodies. In order to make it through the day, those in pain dissociate from bodily sensations, subconsciously make physical compensations, and distract our minds with other things so that we’re not thinking about the pain. While a necessary strategy at times, unfortunately, this can result in more body abuse and more pain. The compensating muscles can get overworked and spasm, too, adding to the pain. Without being mindful of their body, those whose joints are hypermobile may stretch to do things beyond what is good for them simply because they can. The resultant micro-tears to muscle and fascia that are beyond what can be repaired as we sleep (which is spotty when you live in pain), result in more pain. Eventually, we’re no longer able to ignore the increasing pain, and we seek help. By that time, more extreme measures are often prescribed. Getting a massage and paying attention to what hurts and what makes it better helps us get in touch with what’s going on in our bodies so that we can mindfully manage the pain rather than having it manage us by eventually bringing our lives to a standstill.
So if you live with pain, consider getting regular massage to help you manage it better, if not relieve you of it altogether.