All kinds of things. The variety of conditions that respond to massage is immense, from general stress and insomnia, to muscle and nerve pain, to chronic degenerative diseases, to recovering from injuries and surgery. Basically, stress and rigidity inhibit healing. Massage reduces stress and increases flexibility. Voila! That’s most of it.
Massage relieves pain both by releasing the tension and adhesions that create pain – either by pressing on nerves, or holding the body in uncomfortable postures and yanking on muscles and joints – and by giving the brain new sensations to play with. The brain, wisely, tries to protect us from hurting ourselves by creating triggers of pain that flare up as a warning every time we move muscles around an injured area. However, it doesn’t always realize that it’s safe to take those triggers off once an injury has healed. The experience of massage is an opportunity to subconsciously re-evaluate if there is still a need for that pain, and if not, let it go.
This works on an emotional level as well. We might intellectually understand that traumas are over – that we are not vulnerable children, in danger at war, or in a terrible relationship anymore – but do our bodies really believe that? The physical, tangible experience of safety and comfort in a massage redefines what it feels like to live in our own bodies. After stress, abuse, or trauma, it helps provide proof that times have changed. And if the stress can’t end just yet, it creates a touchpoint back into the inner peace that is always available inside you – even if circumstances make it hard to keep in touch with it. Promising research has shown that massage enhances the effectiveness of counseling and psychotherapy.
Massage is also an excellent compliment to a variety of other therapies. It can help scars heal pliably after surgery, provide comfort during serious medical interventions, and reduce stress that inhibits healing, making all therapies more effective.
Insomnia can create a vicious cycle: You can’t sleep. When you’re tired, you feel more pain. The pain makes it harder to sleep. You get less sleep, you get even tireder, it all hurts worse, repeat. The more quality sleep you lose, the fewer the chances your body has to properly repair your tissues. But during a massage, trance-like states of theta waves are often induced, and in that state of relaxation, the body is able to release restorative growth hormone that is otherwise released during deep sleep. It’s a fantastic intervention to help stop the insomnia tailspin.
The research that’s most exciting for me is showing that massage affects epigenetic expression. We’re born with the genes we’re born with, but the real situation is less fatalistic than that: our lifestyles determine which of those multitudes of genes are turned on and operating at any given time. Massage appears to stimulate genes that accelerate healing. The effect is specific enough that, when several volunteers were tested after a run, the leg that received massage had signs of beneficial genes activated, and the other leg – on the same person – lacked them. (This is great news if you’ve ever been afraid that you’re destined to turn out just like your mom, dad, or weird Uncle Lenny. Science has shown that only the parts that don’t get massaged will turn out that way.)
You don’t have to feel bad to get a massage, though – it’s even better to use as a preventative to keep you feeling well, and just to enjoy yourself.