Kneading it Out

Massage therapy is more than self-indulgent pampering

By Lisa Cleary
|  Thursday, Feb 10, 2011  |  Updated 11:54 AM EDT
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Kneading it Out

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Book a massage to zone out and zen-in.

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Booking a massage doesn’t always mean a self-indulgent, pampering, blissful day at the spa.  Many overlook massage therapy as a way to alleviate tight muscles and sore joints.  In fact, it’s one of the oldest healing arts designed to physically and mentally stimulate the body.

Marlene Bruce, a nationally certified massage therapist (N.C.M.T.), licensed in D.C. and Virginia, explains that forms of massage include techniques like effleurage (gentle strokes), petrissage (deeper compressions, kneading), tapotement (vibrations) and stretching. 

Massage therapists will often use their hands, knuckles, elbows and even feet to apply pressure, and they may also stretch the muscles and limbs of clients to promote flexibility and increase range of joint motion.  Types of massages include those that promote general relaxation like Swedish, deep tissue to relieve muscle tension, hot stone and so on.

Oftentimes, muscles need to be stretched back to their natural positions, instead of the unnatural, trained stance the muscles may normally take on during the workday.  In particular, leaning hunched over at a computer for eight hours a day is bound to contribute to the daily aches and pains of a distressed neck and back, among other things.

Pamela Moyer, Licensed Massage Therapist  (L.M.T.) and owner of Eye Street Massage Therapy on I Street, explained that “sitting for hours hunched over a desk or computer can throw your neck out of alignment and cause pain and tightness in the neck, shoulders, and upper and lower back.  It can also shorten the hip flexors, the muscles that bring your legs towards your body, causing tightness and a tilt in the hips, further contributing to low back pain.”

In this sense, massage therapy can relieve muscle-related pain as it supplies oxygen to the body, including the muscles.  Massages further increase circulation and help the body to rid of toxins at a faster rate.  (That’s why, after a massage, therapists recommend drinking lots of water so that the body can flush its system faster.)

Bruce specializes in orthopedic massage, which is a medical form that addresses physical ailments like acute or chronic pain (for instance, resorting again to the neck and back).  Types of orthopedic massage include myofascial release, which targets the connective tissues of the body, as well as trigger point therapy that targets areas that radiate pain to other sites.

“Orthopedic massage focuses on restoring pain-free range of motion throughout the body and integrating complete structural balance.  Special attention is given to correct assessment of the problem, proper treatment and client self-care.  All work is done without discomfort to the client,” said Bruce.

Prior to a massage, a therapist should assess the client to determine which joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments are affected by pain or limited range of motion.

“I utilize a myriad of techniques to positively affect the muscles and joints," Bruce said.  "After the bodywork, the client is given carefully selected stretches for contracted, tight muscles and strengthening exercises for weak, overstretched muscles, so they may continue to have lasting benefits, limiting the number of massage sessions needed."

Studies have shown that massage therapy has positive mental health effects like the reduction of stress, anxiety, depression and aggression by lowering the stress-producing hormone, cortisol, and increasing dopamine levels.

As Moyer emphasizes, many illnesses are stress-induced, and a massage triggers brainwave activity that promotes relaxation and sleep. 

“Even a brief massage can be a bit of a mini-vacation for the brain, and clients report feeling more refreshed and alert, and able to tackle tasks more effectively later," she said.  "Massage is something clients can do to have some measure of control over their mental and physical well-being and take care of themselves."

In addition, benefits of the therapy include general physical relief from a wide range of conditions.

“Massage has been further proven to manage pain due to injury, overuse and exercise, or from conditions like arthritis, headaches and migraines, PMS, fibromyalgia, cancer, multiple sclerosis and so forth,” Bruce stated. “Massage lowers blood pressure, increases range of motion, reduces stiffness and fatigue, increases alertness and improves blood circulation for faster healing.”

The National Integrated Health Associates on Wisconsin Avenue adds to the list of benefits brought forth by massages:

  • Stretches connective tissues
  • Increases red blood cell counts
  • Relieves muscle cramps and spasms
  • Improves posture
  • Strengthens the immune system

Bruce recommends that clients book massages every three to four weeks to notice results, though the needs of each client varies from case to case. 

“An athlete may benefit from massages every two weeks or just before or after a sporting event to reduce the likelihood of injury and promote faster recovery,” Bruce said. “Someone with an acute or chronic condition may need frequent visits for a short period of time to address the issue.  For example, someone with back, shoulder or hip pain may benefit from three sessions over the course of two weeks.”

As a massage therapist, Moyer concludes that she, too, needs a little R&R from time to time:

“As a recipient of massage (and I did just get an hour-long massage), I’m able to let someone else take care of me, easing away the tension, allowing my mind a time out.  It also helps me sleep soundly so that I feel more rested and refreshed the next day.”

Even if you’re not looking for treatment from a physical ailment, consider giving yourself a break at the hands of another person -- literally.  After all, zoning and zen-ning out for an hour isn’t needed -- it’s often required -- with life’s day to day frenetic activity.

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