Why ONE Massage Won’t Fix It

A lot of people come get a massage for the first time after hearing friends and family go on and on about how much massage has helped them. In some cases, massage newbies come in expecting that one thirty-, sixty- or ninety-minute massage with fix an issue that’s been lingering for months (or worse, years). Massage is most helpful as part of a routine regimen of self-care.

Many medications people take are taken daily as a means to control issues or symptoms in the body. Would you take cholesterol or diabetes medicine for just one day and expect the problem to be resolved? Of course not! Changing metabolic processes, complex, system-wide chemical/molecular interactions or even neurotransmitter levels throughout the body requires more than one pill. These complex, system-wide issues need daily adjustments, either from medication, through diet or through exercise to be managed well. The neuromuscular system is no different.

Muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and other connective tissue run through the body. They connect the bones to one another, they hold your organs in place, they work together in complex firing patterns to create smooth and seamless movement. Massage works on loosening these connective tissues, resolving tension in spots that need to be looser, opening areas that are constricted, breaking up adhesions that have grown between layers of injured or compromised muscle and tissue.

Muscles work in groups across joints or flexible areas. One set pulls the limb or body in one directions, and its other members oppose that action. These groups act together in complex patterns whether you’re performing a pirouette, fixing dinner, or working on the computer while talking on the phone.

I often have clients ask me how many massages it will take to “fix” the problem. In order to set realistic expectations in the mind of those new to massage, or new to massage as a therapy for self-care, there are some questions you need to ask yourself:

How long did you spend developing the issue?

Often pain and discomfort develops over months or years of abuse of the body. When clients come in complaining of headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and they tell me they sit for hours at a keyboard in a slouched position, I can get an idea of the severity of the issue. I can work out some tight spots, and release some adhesions, but in addition to my sixty or ninety minutes, I suggest improving posture or ergonomic positioning. Or I give them some simple self-massage or stretching exercises to try.

When clients ask me how many massages it will take to “fix” the issue, I have to set expectations. In most cases of chronic pain and overuse injury, the injured tissues have setup a compensation pattern that redirects force or use away from the compromised areas. When someone with a bad knee limps, he’s favoring that knee, but putting additional work and stress on the opposite leg, and on the core and torso to compensate for the uneven gait and weight-bearing of the two legs. Compensation patterns are what enable us to continue moving and working when we’ve injured part of the body. They allow the injured area to heal by taking away some of the mechanical pressure on the area and passing on the work to other muscles not as compromised or overused.

So, ask yourself how long you’ve had the problem. Some physical therapists will say that for every month you’ve had a problem it will take a week of physical therapy. I see more variance in the response of my clients from physical therapy. But I would admit that the longer you’ve had an issue or injury, the longer it will take you to correct it. And I would add that correcting the issue includes more than receiving massage. It includes self-care, self-massage, stretching and strengthening to rehabilitate the body. Which brings me to my next point:

What are you doing to resolve the issue other than massage?

You’ve heard the quote, “Insanity is doing something same way over and over and expecting a different result.” Your body knows this intimately. Massage can help. Massage does help, but if your issues are overuse- or posture-related injuries and you continue to do things as you’ve done them before, the benefits of the massage will quickly be overcome by the resumption of old patterns and behaviors.

In order to reset the neuromuscular system, you need to include some self-care in your health regimen. This can be something as simple as taking breaks for every 30 or 40 minutes at the keyboard, stretching out your arms and neck every hour, or standing every 30 minutes to stretch out the lower back. It could also include strengthening and stretching exercises throughout the day. It might be meditation, or visualization, yoga or T’ai Chi.

The point is that massage is most effective when combined with daily retraining or refocusing of the body and mind. For people who include stretching, strengthening and other self-care in their routine the effects of massage last much longer, and the recovery time from injury is shorter. Including these changes to your routine constantly reminds the body that there is a more relaxed, efficient and healthy way to move.

Is this something directly related to an activity you can’t or won’t give up?

We all have things we love to do, even when we know it’s hard on our bodies. I have knitters who won’t give up knitting, musicians who keep on playing, and gamers who continue to spend long hours at the keyboard. We all have things we have to do even when we don’t want to – long nights holding kids who won’t sleep, slogging away on a project late into the night, hours at a laptop at a customer site – things that have to get done.

But there’s often a middle path to find. A gentler way to position yourself or perform your hobbies so that you can continue to enjoy them, or a way to make up for the long hours at work or taking care of others by taking care of ourselves. You may have to do a little research or fact-finding, and it may require some modifications, but it may be possible.

Get creative. Talk with other people in your situation. Find those people who seem calm no matter the whirlwind going on around them, the ones who’ve been doing the hobby for decades and tease their modifications or secrets out from them. They’d probably love to tell you how they figured to survive.

There are cases where what you’re doing physically to your body is unsustainable. Sometimes runners reach the point where their knees can no longer carry them. Or individuals who spend long hours sitting or standing have to change their activities. Change is inevitable. But in many cases, you can keep your hobbies or at least enjoy them in a different way.

And finally:

How committed are you to getting better?

It’s no surprise that there are some people who don’t want to change. They may hurt, and ache, and talk constantly about how bad things are, but the bottom line is that they don’t want to change. People have a lot of fear of change. It brings with it the unknown, an uncertainty in how things will turn out. It might make things better, but it might also make things worse, or take you right back to where you started. You may know people like this. This may be you.

But if you are hurting enough, tired enough, or just plain fed up with the way your body feels, you WILL find a way to do it. I’ve seen people make incredible recoveries from chronic pain, from injuries and complex issues to live a normal life. And it wasn’t magic. We didn’t fix it in 30 or 60 minutes on the table, but we were able to work on daily activities, stretching and strengthening. We built a plan that included regular massage, stretching, self-massage, self-care and whatever else was needed to give the body time to heal.

pie missing a piece

Massage therapy is part of a larger whole

Massage works well to improve blood flow, reduce the pain of injuries or duration of healing. But massage is most effective when it’s part of an array of self-care modalities. The muscles don’t exist in a vacuum. Injuries and compensation patterns build up over time. The body requires re-education to heal from long-injuries or chronic pain and illness – regular massage is one piece of the puzzle that can include many modalities and activities -  that teach the body to move toward that more relaxed, healthy, strong state that it belongs in.

Photo credits from Flickr.com CCL from top to bottom: Users – Foxtongue, Jennifer Kumar, oddsock, madmolecule, and pie image from blog.seasonwithspice.com

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