If one of your New Year’s resolutions included losing a few pounds, you need to know about the benefits of regular massage. Massage reduces stress levels and can help your muscles release toxins after a workout.
As odd as it may seem, relaxation is key to losing weight. Studies indicate that long-term stress, not over-eating, may be at the root of many people’s inability to shed unwanted pounds.
The adrenal glands produce two hormones that come to our aid and trigger the “fight or flight” response. One of these is adrenaline, and the other is cortisol.
Cortisol’s job is to help your body produce more glucose from protein so that you have energy to confront or evade a threat. When cortisol is released as a response to run-of-the-mill, everyday stressors instead of a real “fight or flight” dangers, the excess glucose is converted to fat.
Typically, this cortisol fat is abdominal fat, which is one of the most dangerous kinds of fat to our health because it is related to greater danger of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and hypertension&emdash; all diseases that have a connection to stress.
Excess cortisol in the blood can also lead to depression, which in turn can lead to unhealthy emotional eating, especially of foods that ramp up production of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. Chocolate and most starchy carbs fall into this category.
Research in several studies indicates that even a 15 minute chair massage can reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol levels did not drop in control groups. Furthermore, reduction of cortisol acts to boost the immune system generally, decrease pain, and induce more restful sleep. Clearly, massage can be seen as preventative health care and not just as an indulgence.
Another way massage can help with weight-loss is by making workouts easier. Massage therapists can employ PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretches or other techniques to improve your range of motion. Likewise, massage works to increase circulation and lymphatic flow so that you can better release the waste products that build up during a workout. Improved circulation and lymphatic flow helps to heal the microscopic tears in the muscle fibers that come from unaccustomed exertion by taking oxygen and white blood cells to the site of injury. In fact, massage is an integral part of most professional athletes’ training regimen.
Releasing trigger points will also improve your range of motion and make workouts easier and their aftermath less painful. Trigger points are taut bands of muscle that inhibit movement and refer pain to other sites in the body. When the rest of the muscle relaxes, they stay contracted, and the result is pain.
Other massage techniques that helps you lose weight are lymphatic drainage and massage cupping, a technique that applies “reverse pressure” to the body, using glass or plastic suction cups that are massaged along problem areas in the direction of natural lymphatic flow. Both methods help the body release dead cells (including fat cells) and may stimulate sluggish metabolism.
Although it sounds contradictory to add a relaxation component to a weight-loss plan, massage has proven itself to help people reduce the stress that can cause weight gain and to improve athletic flexibility, performance and recovery time.
I received an email this week from a new client who has been suffering from a headache lasting a week. I remembered reading a series in Massage and Bodywork Magazine, a publication of the Associated Massage and Bodywork Professionals (AMBP)), by Til Luchau. I pulled them out and reread them. Then I did a little more research online.
Luchau divides headaches into two broad categories: tension and musculoskeletal headaches in one category and migraine and other vascular headaches in the other. I’d add a third category: sinus headache. TMJ headaches might be a fourth category, and the general protocols for TMJ jaw pain often relieve the headaches as well. However, these headaches might be better categorized as a subset of TMJ dysfunction.
Luchau provides a chart for musculoskeletal/tension and migraine/vascular symptoms in his first article. My other research differs a bit on some points, but is in general consistent with Luchau. Understanding the symptoms is important because slightly different massage techniques are used for each type of headache. The image below offers a capsule version with hunger and eyestrain headaches omitted in the discussion that follows.
Tension headaches often arise when the muscles on the shoulders, back of the neck, under the occiput (posterior inferior cranium), and scalp become tight and pull on the scalp and the lining (dura mater) under the skull. Clenching the teeth is also a tension response and can cause headache even if TMJ dysfunction is not present.
Usually, tension headaches occur on both sides of the head, but if the musculature on one side of the body is tighter than the other, the pain may be worse on that side. It may also be worse in the back of the head, but depending on which muscles are hypertonic, it can be located almost anywhere. The pain is often a dull ache, but it may be more severe. It sometimes feels like squeezing or tightness in the head. Physical activity usually does not exacerbate it.
According to Luchau, the hands-on goal of working with tension headaches is to reduce the myofascial tension.
Sinus headaches are caused when the mucous membranes that line the four air-filled sinus cavities become irritated and swollen. The sinuses produce more mucus as a response, and the mucus that normally serves to moisten the air and soothe the sinuses becomes thicker and adds congestion that further blocks the sinus passages often creating a vacuum within them.
The pain is usually felt as pressure and/or tenderness just behind the eyes, cheeks, and forehead or near the upper teeth or temple regions. The pain may worsen if you lie down although lying down may reduce the pain of tension and migraine headaches. Bending over usually makes sinus headache worse. Your face may be noticeably swollen from a sinus headache.
If the cause of a sinus headache is infection, massage is contraindicated, and you should see a doctor immediately. Otherwise, massage with a hands-on goal of stimulating lymphatic drainage and relieving blocks caused by swelling and congestion may help.
Migraines are believed to be caused when the blood vessels inside the head dilate. Many migraine remedies include vasoconstrictors for this reason. However, according to Lachau, new research may point to another cause.
“Recent research suggests that migraines start as waves of nerve cell hyperactivity sweeping across the brain; the spreading waves in turn activate pain-signaling neurons in the brain stem. The root cause of these neuro-electrical ‘brain storms’ of abnormally increased activity is unknown. The hyperactivity is followed by inhibited nerve cell excitability; the cells seem to be worn out, and this exhaustion may explain difficulty speaking or thinking clearly after migraines” (Luchau, Sept./Oct. 2010).
The pounding or throbbing, sometimes stabbing, pain of a migraine is usually focused on one side of the head. It is frequently preceded by an “aura” or visual disturbance and is accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light, sound, and odors. Physical activity can make it worse.
Most migraine sufferers have ideas about the triggers that cause their headaches and the symptoms that signal one is starting. They may also know that the massage protocols that work on tensions headaches often have little lasting effect on a migraine. Luchau’s hands-on goal of migraine massage is to reduce cranial compression, and I would agree that even if the migraine is initially triggered by muscular tension or sinus blockage, by the time it is a full-blown migraine, work on the cranium and the cranial fascia is necessary to relieve it.
Sometimes it is hard to tell what kind of headache it is. Generally, a look at the location and quality of the pain and at the response to activity and sensory input can help identify the type of headache you have. However, if you have a sudden, severe headache with no history of migraine headache or a dull headache that will not respond to treatment, you need to see your doctor immediately. Headaches can be a symptom of severe and even life-threatening conditions, stroke for example, and should not be ignored.
The massage protocol for a tension headache will include release of tight neck, shoulder and chest muscles and general relaxation strokes. Luchau’s first article emphasized release of the superficial and deep fascia of the scalp and a concentration of the suboccipital regions. I would add trigger point therapy of specific muscles likely to contribute to headache pain. Indeed, numerous research studies have cited the efficacy of massage, including specific pain-relieving modalities and more general relaxation type massage which tends to improve overall structural alignment and release endorphins into the body, as greatly relieving symptoms of tension headaches and even preventing headache recurrence when massage is received regularly.
Sinus massage with use of lymphatic drainage therapy is effective for relieving the pressure in the sinuses. (See my recent newsletter article on Sinus Massage.) The Lymph Drainage Therapy technique is slow and precise, and it uses feather-light strokes to move the lymph out of the head and into the nodes. It may also include the use of aromatherapy to further open the sinus passages.
Migraine headaches respond well to Craniosacral Therapy, especially intraoral work. CST allows the therapist to decompress the bones of the cranium and balance the blood flow. It also allows for structural realignment. Luchau’s technique uses a little more pressure than CST, but it is similar. (Trigger point therapy is often not as effective on migraines and on tension headaches.)
According to Luchau, the effect of this cranial work may be to reduce the pressure on the trigeminal nerve or to affect the hypothalamus and pituitary glands which may be responsible for the “brainstorm” of nerve cell hyperactivity mentioned in the quote above (Luchau, Nov./Dec. 2010).
Regular massage may also increase serotonin levels in migraine sufferers and thus prevent recurrence. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and low serotonin levels have been indicated in migraine sufferers. Low serotonin also causes depression, seasonal affective disorder, addictions and eating disorders.
Two other modalities that seem to reduce headache pain are Myofascial Release and Reiki. Myofascial Release used gentle, light traction and stretching to release the fascia, which is a single sheath of connective tissue that covers the muscles, bones, organs, and even the cells (everything!) inside your body. Craniosacral therapy and lymph drainage therapy always incorporate myofascial release as do other modalities, but it can be used as a “stand-alone” modality. Reiki is one of a number of energy modalities that can be used to work on the subtle energy body. In many cases, this gentle therapy alone can relieve the headache.
Massage has been proven in study after study to decrease the severity and frequency of headaches. When you see your therapist, be sure to tell her the following to help her determine the best therapy protocol for your specific needs:
Where your pain is located
How long you’ve had the pain and if it comes and goes
How often you have headaches in general
If you’ve seen a physician and if so, what is the diagnosis
What precipitated the headache if you know
What is the quality of the pain (dull, throbbing, stabbing)
How movement and sensory stimulus affect the pain levels
What you have done to relieve it, such as taking pain relievers or using cold compresses, before coming to her
Headaches do not have to be a fact of life. Self-care and regular massage can be of great help in preventing them and relieving them when they do occur.
I always look forward to the Easter season. When I was working in the public schools, I got a week’s vacation, and that was worth something in itself. But now that I’m a massage therapist and not teaching, I still look forward to Easter. Maybe more so this year because the winter was so cold.
Easter heralds spring and new life. Not a little of its charm, I think, is its coming after the season of Lent when we are charged to look into our own hearts and to acknowledge the ways we have fallen short in our lives. Somehow, as it is meant to do, Easter morning redeems that forty days of introspection, and everything feels crisp, clean, and possible.
One of the challenges of Lent and Easter is to forgive the people who have taken advantage of us, who have broken faith, who have ignored our wishes and needs. That is easier for me to do when I remember to live in the present moment and don’t constantly replay the tapes of my past. Indeed, living in the present cures more than just my victim mentality.
Still, when it comes right down to it, the hardest person for me to forgive is the one who looks back from the mirror each morning. I guess part of our hardwiring as human beings includes a superego voice whose sole purpose it to judge and criticize our every thought and move–to make us feel bad about ourselves.
Of course, occasionally the superego pats us on the back and tells us how much better we are than some other poor slob, but that kind of narcissism is just as deadly to our self-forgiveness as the constant critical voice.
Indeed, if we are honest, we often don’t forgive others because they have in fact hit the very sore spot that our superego has been attacking our whole lives.
The only way we can be free to forgive ourselves (and others) is to tell the superego to shut up! When I first started trying to do this, I was met with even more guilt and shame because it felt to me like I was telling my mother to shut up, which was not a good idea in my childhood home. A wise friend helped me see that the difference was that my mother’s criticism came from a place of love, but my superego has no emotions. Its purpose it to make me feel rotten about myself or rotten about everyone else.
Originally, my superego may have started as the voice of my mother trying to protect me, and its function may have been to protect me. But I have outgrown its scare tactics and its self-righteous analysis of events. I am not a child anymore. I have experience of my own to draw upon. I don’t need protecting and certainly not by a disembodied, cold, cruel imitation of someone who actually had my best interests at heart. I can tell it to shut up!
Once my superego is silenced, I begin to see that whether my mistakes of the past were made from ignorance, fear, anger, or even hatred, they came from a place that now deserves compassion. (Surprisingly, I also see the same is true for others.) I can begin to atone for my mistakes, either directly if it is possible, or indirectly if direct recompense would make matters worse. I can begin to acknowledge my weaknesses and also begin to see my strengths. I can get in touch with something inside myself that is good and true. I can begin to really like that person in the mirror.
The critical voice of the superego is not honest conscience. My Enneagram teacher, Don Riso, told me that you will know the difference between the two by their fruits. My conscience tells me what is good, decent and right. My superego attacks no matter what decision I make. It is just as relentless when I am gentle and kind as it is when I am forceful and cruel.
When I silence my superego, I can begin to allow a deeper place to open inside. That is the place of my true self. It is a place that knows what is good and true and beautiful because that is its own nature. It is connected to Source. It can be found in the silence that comes when I tell my superego, “Shut Up!”