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Beyond the Mainstream

The Healing, Human Touch of Massage

February 05, 2001|Barrie R. Cassileth

One of our cancer patients recently was discharged from the hospital after a long and difficult stay, only to be readmitted two days later for a dangerously high fever. Though devastated to be back in the hospital, there was something that made it tolerable for him: a massage therapist. "I was only able to deal with this," the patient told his massage therapist, "because I knew you would be here."

Massage therapy may often be one of the few times a patient with advanced cancer is touched in a noninvasive, nonhurtful way. The comfort of massage therapy is immeasurable. Clearly there is more to massage therapy than just relaxing with a rubdown after a workout at your neighborhood gym. When performed by trained and certified therapists, massage has important psychological as well as physiological benefits. Not only does it relax muscles, it also reduces the feeling of being stressed and can induce profound relaxation. It works on many of the problems exacerbated by muscle tension, including headaches, insomnia and backaches, and it's often prescribed to relieve the pain of migraines. Among patients struggling with serious illness, the physical touch of a therapist's hands delivers the added message of caring and attention often lacking in the seriously ill patient's fight against disease.

The idea of massage as a useful therapy in treating many ills and ailments has come a long way since the prevalence of the roadside "massage parlors." Now that research has illuminated the health benefits of massage, the medical community increasingly accepts this intervention as a viable complementary therapy for a wide range of illnesses and conditions.

Medical journals have reported studies showing that massage therapy decreases anxiety and improves the strength of infants with a range of medical problems, including HIV. Massage therapy provides well-documented benefits for adult patients with major illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. It also has been shown to reduce pain and itching for patients who have suffered serious burns.

If you've ever had a massage, it's likely you felt your muscles relax. Probably you also felt relief from pain, stress and anxiety. Athletes and dancers depend on massage after their activities to reduce the pain of aggressive exercise and to promote relaxation.

How does it work? When muscles are overworked or otherwise strained, waste products such as lactic acid accumulate in the muscle, causing soreness, stiffness and sometimes muscle spasms. Massage increases blood circulation, bringing more oxygen to the area through increased blood flow. This accelerates the elimination of waste products, promoting healing after injury and comfort during illness.

Massage as therapy is not a new medical concept. It goes back 4,000 to 5,000 years. One of the earliest books on Chinese medicine, "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine," published in 2700 BC, lists massage as a treatment for paralysis, chills and fever. Early Egyptian tomb paintings depict massage as therapy, and none other than Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the father of medicine, described massage as a useful therapy for sports and war injuries.

Today, there are numerous types and applications of massage therapy. Each ancient cultures seem to have developed an approach that is consistent with its belief and customs, and each has something special to offer.

Perhaps the best-known type in this country is Swedish massage, developed by a 19th century Swedish physician. Swedish massage utilizes five different manipulative techniques, including effleurage, a long gliding stroke using the therapist's hand or thumb; petrissage, a kneading and compressing motion; friction, which is a series of deep circular movements using thumbs and fingertips; vibration, involving a rapid shaking movement; and a technique called tapotement, striking or tapping muscles with the therapist's hands. Very gentle, light-touch massage may work best for patients who are frail or very ill. It is the caring hands-on touch that matters.

Shiatsu massage, of Asian origin, is a popular acupressure technique in which the therapist's fingers apply strong, rhythmic pressure along the body, arms and legs. In Hawaii, Chamori massage therapy includes handcrafted wood and lava stone implements, applied to the body with the sacred cadence of drumbeats and ancient chants, to produce a feeling of peace and relaxation.

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