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Massage: Types, Uses and Safety

It is almost a reflex to rub our body when we experience pain. In that sense, massage is probably the oldest therapy known to mankind. It is used in all medical systems around the world mostly to stop muscular and joint pain and to aid relaxation. Massage can be used effectively for a range of conditions such as headaches, back pain, depression as well as enhancing the development of premature babies. There are many different types of massage, but they have one thing in common, as they all involve outside pressure to the body.

How Massage Works

Massage is believed to work is by relaxing muscles and the mind, by increasing blood flow, and possibly also by affecting organs in the body. Massaging the body surface is thought to affect the organs and structures beneath the skin and different methods have been developed to affect different parts of the body.

Types of Massage

Massage is typically done with the hands, but sometimes also other methods, like using electrical or water driven equipment, are used to apply the necessary pressure to the skin. Often, a therapist will use light vegetable oil (usually with added aromatic essential oils), or cream to help their hands glide over the skin. Over the years, different cultures have developed different approaches to massage therapy. Some examples are:

  • Biodynamic massage is a form of massage, which believes that it is possible to release energy trapped in the muscle and the gut.
  • Hellerwork is a therapy based on Rolfing (mentioned below) and combines deep tissue massage with education in the way we move our body. It also focuses on the inter-relation between emotional and physical stresses.
  • Lymph drainage, developed in Germany, is the use of gentle pressure along the lymph channels and lymph nodes to increase lymph flow and reduce tissue oedema.
  • Reflexology, also from Germany, is a form of massage based on the theory that points on the feet are linked to organs in the body and that manipulation of these points can correct imbalance in the working of the body.
  • Rolfing (or structural integration), concentrates on bringing the whole body back into ‘correct vertical alignment’. It does this by using firm pressure, applied with fingers, knuckles and elbows, to help the muscle structure realign.
  • Shiatsu is a forceful massage developed in Japan. It follows the principle of acupuncture by applying pressure to acupuncture points.
  • Soft tissue massage is a technique, which targets the deeper tissues and influences distant organs via nerve connections between the body surface and inner organs.
  • Swedish massage works directly on muscles and has a long tradition in Europe.
  • Very gentle massage (a form of very light rubbing) helps premature or underweight babies gain weight faster and leave hospital more quickly than those that are not stroked.

Physical Conditions Treated with Massage

Various forms of massage have been shown in trials to help treat conditions such as back pain, headaches, myofascial pain syndrome, stress-related insomnia and constipation, to relieve anxiety and depression, to ease the symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, premenstrual syndrome and muscle soreness (particularly after strenuous exercise or sport injuries), and to help premature and underweight babies gain weight faster (this applies only to very gentle massage). However, even though massage holds promise for a variety of other conditions, more proof is needed before a definite answer can be given.

Potential Health Risks of Massage

Massage generally carries very little risk if done properly, although people who are very sensitive to touch may not enjoy it. But, massage cannot be recommended to people with burns, bone fractures, deep vein thrombosis (severe thrombocytopenia) and skin infections. In addition, patients who have eczema or open wounds should make sure that these areas are not massaged. Also, osteoporosis patients should inform their massage therapist about their condition because forceful massage could cause bone fractures.

Where to Find More Information: Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals