Massage is one of the ancient arts of wellness. First mentions of massage occurred in China in 2700 BCE, but it was not long before it spread to the Middle East, Greece, and India! Massage is the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body. The goal of this manipulation is to promote relaxation and stress relief while easing pain and promoting an overall feeling of wellness. Physically speaking, massage also increases oxygen and blood flow to muscles. This can, in turn, promote your brain’s release of serotonin, the relaxation chemical. We know that most people suffer from pain in their back, neck, and shoulders due to today’s working conditions. Because of this, we’ll look at the best massage for back pain specifically, as well as styles that can help with other pain conditions.
Does massage for back pain (and other types of pain) work?
Massage has gained popularity in recent years as increasing numbers of people are seeking alternative care. The many health benefits of massage therapy can be used as part of a multi-disciplinary treatment plan. Surveys show that more people each year seek massage for health reasons and more physicians are recommending massage to their patients.
When muscles are overused, the tissues of the body bind and adhere to other tissues, like nerves. These tissues need to move freely in order to function properly. Instead, this creates adhesions that cause shorter and weaker muscles, tendonitis, or entrapped nerves. Other causes that can lead to tense or weak muscles include:
- Improper posture
- Faulty biomechanics
- Compensation for earlier injuries
- Muscle strain
- Ligament sprain
There is strong evidence massage is effective for nonspecific chronic low back pain. Massage is beneficial for patients in terms of improving symptoms and function. High-quality regular massage can:
- Relieve pain through physical and mental relaxation
- Increase local blood flow and oxygenation in muscles
- Increase your pain threshold through the release of endorphins and serotonin
- Improve muscle flexibility
- Loosen adherent connective tissue
Massage is a worthwhile investment – it can save you money by reducing health-care provider visits, use of pain medications, and costs of other treatments. The effects of massage have also been shown to improve when combined with exercise and a good diet.
Best types of massage for pain
More and more people are turning to massage therapy to treat their chronic pain. Muscles that are overused or used incorrectly can become shortened and bound to other tissues in the body. These adhesions can cause weak muscles, tendinitis, and compressed or trapped nerves.
All of these consequences can be addressed through massage, but not all styles of massage are good for all types of pain. And, the effects of massage vary due to differences in techniques and skill of the therapist. Common types of massage therapy are acupressure (shiatsu), rolfing, Swedish massage, reflexology, myofascial release, and craniosacral therapy. Massage can use a combination of techniques including effleurage, petrissage, friction, kneading, or hacking. Depending on the practitioner or setting, massages for pain may be your first treatment approach or you may use it in conjunction with other treatments.
Here are five types of massage that can help with different types of pain, including back pain and neck pain (two of the most common types of pain in Canada).
Swedish massage may be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about massage. This type of massage focuses on deep and complete relaxation but can also be used to release cramped muscles. Swedish massage uses a number of different techniques, including the following:
- Effleurage: These are long sweeping strokes from the top of a muscle to the bottom, usually at the beginning or the end of a massage (or both).
- Petrissage: Rolling and kneading the muscles, like kneading bread dough. Pressure can vary according to the client’s sensitivity. The massage therapist may focus attention on a “crunchy” or tense area. They’ll start first with light petrissage and increase the pressure to help the muscle release.
- Tapotement: Light and rhythmic tapping or drumming. This technique can vary in pressure and speed and can be either relaxing or energizing.
- Friction: Deep pressure is applied to a particular muscle to encourage it to release.
Swedish massage is an excellent choice for stress relief and for people who experience the whole body pain of muscle cramping. Practitioners gently help sore, tense muscles release so that the patient can feel some relief and rest.
2. Deep tissue
Deep tissue massage is not for everyone. Just as it sounds, this type of massage features a practitioner who goes deeply into each sore muscle, reaching as far down through the muscle to the bone as possible. This can help to release scar tissue and assist in relaxing tightly knotted muscles that can cause chronic neck and upper back pain. Deep tissue massage uses many of the same techniques as Swedish massage.
In this type of massage, it is crucial that you speak up while you are on the table. While this is not the same type of deeply relaxing massage as a Swedish massage, you should not be in so much pain that you cannot let your knotted muscles release. Qualified deep tissue practitioners are happy to vary their levels at your request, including starting lightly and going deeply over the course of the massage.
Deep tissue massage is excellent for people with chronic pain due to a build-up of scar tissue or those with stiff, painful areas in the neck, shoulders, and back. You should expect to feel sore for a few days after the massage, but a warm bath with Epsom salts can help with that.
3. Trigger point
Trigger point massage is similar to deep tissue in that is goes much more deeply into the muscle than Swedish massage. The goal of trigger point massage is to identify and release a tight point within a tight muscle: the trigger point. Trigger points are tight areas within a muscle that cause pain in another area of the body. For example, a trigger point in the neck may cause migraine pain, or one in the back may cause radiating pain down the leg leading to sciatica.
Trigger point massage does not necessarily work the entire body or the entire length of a muscle. The emphasis is on releasing the specific trigger point to alleviate pain. This is done by adding deep pressure to the trigger point and then releasing it, over and over again until the trigger point releases.
This type of massage is best for chronic muscle pain and tension, as well as migraines brought on by muscle tension.
4. Myofascial release
Myofascial release is similar to trigger point massage. It targets trigger points in the fascia to relieve pain throughout the body. Because the fascia, the thin layer of connective tissue that covers all of the muscles in the body, connects to every muscle in the body, myofascial release focuses on a broad expanse of muscle all over the body.
The practitioner will first gently massage all over the body. They’ll feel for any spots of tension or tightness in the fascia. Under normal conditions, fascia should be pliable. If there are areas of tightness, the therapist will work those areas gently, increasing pressure across the area as the fascia begins to release.
You can practice this technique on your own at home using rigid foam rollers on legs, arms, and backs. For plantar fasciitis, a tennis ball rolled along all three arches of the feet can help release fascial tension.
This massage technique can be pain-relieving for those who suffer from fibromyalgia, but it will not necessarily be relaxing on the table. Myofascial release is also indicated as a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome.
5. Craniosacral therapy
Craniosacral massage therapists use a very light touch to encourage proper movement of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. The goal is to help release physical imbalances and restrictions in the body’s muscles and connective tissues to relieve pain gently.
Because of its light nature, craniosacral massage is excellent for fibromyalgia and other whole-body pain syndromes. It can also relieve neck and back pain and migraines and help counteract the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome.
The quality of your massage and the success of massage therapy depends on the quality of the massage practitioner. Check out our mobile massage practitioner – Pamela Butterworth, and her wealth of experience and knowledge!
When considering massage for pain, it is important to communicate to your therapist and talk openly about your medical conditions. Discuss the frequency of treatment with your practitioner, although noticeable improvements usually require multiple sessions. It is not uncommon, though, to have some pain relief after your first treatment.
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