How Does Massage Therapy Work, Exactly?
Your body is an amazing, complicated organism; it automatically adjusts your blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, brain chemicals, even your sense of vision according to your surrounding environment. And then, of course, there are non-automatic functions: walking, talking, working, exercising, etc. Your body has an incredible ability to coordinate all of these things at once. Some people, of course, are better at it than others. Walking and chewing gum, I can handle; patting myself on the head and rubbing my stomach was never my strong suit. Thank goodness that most job interviews don’t call for those sorts of things. Whew!
The point is, your body has hundreds of things it’s responsible for, and so massage therapy can affect your body through many of these systems. The main ways massage affects you, though, are these:
- The relaxation response
- Mechanical responses
- Nervous system responses
The relaxation response is what most people associate with the benefits of massage. It’s that “aaaah” moment, where you get to relax and the time on the massage table is all about you. However, it’s not just an emotional response; your body has physical responses to the “aaaah” moment as well. These physical responses include decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, better digestion (has your stomach ever gurgled while you’re getting your massage? Physical “proof” that your body is relaxing!), increased serotonin (happy hormone), and decreased cortisol (stress hormone). Your muscles relax, and even your pupils dilate!
Now, why on earth are these physical responses related to the relaxation response? Shouldn’t they be counted as mechanical responses? Well, yes and no. By now, you should know that there aren’t any “easy” answers, in this blog at least. :) You’re looking for real information, and I’m here to give it to you. So, yes, these physical responses have mechanical triggers. However, most of these responses are due to the fact that you relax! Your heart rate goes down partially because you’re not thinking about work, or the grocery store, or your errands. Your pupils dilate because even the muscles in your eyes relax. Feeling better increases your level of serotonin, which in turn makes you feel better.
An interesting digression here is the idea that how you feel affects your body. When you’re angry or upset, do your hands shake or does your stomach or chest hurt? Nothing “physical” necessarily happened, but your body changes. Well, those changes can be for the positive as well. Get a massage, go for a bike ride, go outside for 10 minutes, go to a museum. Whatever floats your boat; and that, too, will affect your body for the better.
The mechanical responses are far more complicated, and thus more interesting to me, which is probably why I focus on orthopedic and medical massage, and not just relaxation massage.
The simplest mechanical response is increased circulation. Massage increases the circulation of blood and lymph through your body. Better blood circulation decreases your blood pressure and heart rate, and relaxes muscles. Increased circulation in tendons and ligaments also decreases pain in those structures; tendons and ligaments don’t naturally have a lot of blood flow, so bringing blood flow to those structures helps them heal by bringing in more nutrients, as well as flushing toxins away. Better blood and lymph circulation also improves organ health. Just like muscles, organs need a steady, fresh supply of blood and lymph to do their best work.
Another mechanical response is the physical impact of the massage on your muscles. Massage directly relaxes muscles and other tissue, not just via better circulation. Different massage techniques affect muscles in different ways. Some techniques help stretch muscles. Other techniques get rid of “knots” in muscles. A “knot” is an area of constricted muscle tissue; in other words, the muscle has tightened up, but now can’t un-tighten on its own. Massage can physically rub out the knot; the physical motion of massage-on-muscle breaks down actin-myosin bonds in the muscle tissue, allowing the muscle to relax.
Want to know more about muscle contraction? Send an email or post a comment and ask about it!
The next article will discuss nervous system responses to massage. Nervous system responses are probably the most complicated; there are many elements in the nervous system as well as many types of nerves.