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The Role of Massage Therapy in Treating Chronic Pain

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Massage has been around for thousands of years. There is no doubt that a massage can relax overworked muscles. But massage therapy can also be beneficial for people dealing with chronic pain.

Woman having shoulder treatment by Female Massage therapist

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, chronic pain affects over 70 million people in the United States alone. Worldwide that number is much larger. Pain that persists can develop due to a medical condition, such as arthritis, cancer and migraines. Chronic pain can also be the result of an injury or accident or occur after surgery.

Although chronic pain obviously affects a person physically, there are also other consequences. People who suffer from chronic pain may develop depression, anxiety and relationship problems. In fact, all areas of a person’s life may be affected. The bottom line is living with pain can decrease a person’s quality of life.

How Massage Can Help Treat Pain    

Numerous studies have indicated that massage can be an effective way to treat pain. But how does it work? If you have ever had a massage, you know how good you feel afterward. You may feel better due to a variety of physiological changes that take place in your body during and after a massage. 

Researchers believe massage decreases proteins in the body called inflammatory cytokines. The decrease in cytokines may reduce inflammation. Less inflammation can often result in decreased pain.

The physical manipulation of the soft tissue through massage also is thought to improve lymph and blood circulation. When blood flow to the tissues increase, the delivery of nutrients and oxygen is enhanced, which encourages healing.

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Massage also relaxes muscles, which can decrease painful spasms and contractions. When a muscle is contracted or spasms, it can compress a nerve causing a lot of pain. By decreasing contractions, the nerve compression may also be relieved.

But that’s not all. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, studies have suggested that massage therapy causes an increase in oxytocin, which is a hormone that is a natural painkiller. Some studies have indicated that serotonin, which is a chemical in the brain that promotes feelings of wellbeing, is also released after a massage.

Conditions Massage May Help

Massage can be an effective way to treat pain from a variety of conditions, including pain from surgery. The Mayo Clinic conducted a study involving people who were dealing with post-operative symptoms from a cardiac surgery. Patients reported pain in the neck, shoulders and back due to manipulation from the surgical procedure. Researchers found that when massage was incorporated into a treatment plan, patients required less medication and had lower stress. 

People who have chronic pain may also find massage therapy helpful.  Several conditions can be treated with massage including osteoarthritis, headaches and low back pain. People with conditions, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome may also find massage therapy beneficial.

In some situations, cancer can also cause chronic pain. The disease itself, along with side effects from radiation and chemotherapy, can leave someone with severe pain. Massage therapy can play a role in managing cancer-related pain.

The Journal of Pain and System Management published a study conducted by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The study indicated that massage therapy reduced pain in cancer patients by about 50 percent. 

Benefits of Massage Therapy Over Medication to Manage Pain   

Typical treatments for pain include medication and surgery. While both can have a role in treating pain, they may not always be the best choice. Surgery is invasive and does not always solve the problem.  

When it comes to pain medication, side effects are often a big problem. Common side effects from narcotic pain medications include constipation, fatigue, and nausea. Also, it’s common for a person taking pain killers to build up a tolerance to the drugs. An increased tolerance results in increasing the dose. Unfortunately, drug dependency and addiction can be a result of taking pain medications for an extended period.

Not only does massage therapy not cause the negative side effects that pain medication can, it often has positive effects. For example, massage promotes relaxation and better sleep, which both help someone deal with pain better. Relaxation is often a factor in recovery, but it is routinely overlooked.  When a person is relaxed, rested and content, it often improves their ability to move and exercise, which can help improve a person’s condition.

An overall improvement in well-being also helps someone deal with the consequences of chronic pain, such as depression and anxiety. As mood improves, it can motivate a person to participate in other types of therapies and treatment that may be beneficial.

Whether or not massage therapy alone can eliminate pain depends on several factors. But even when conventional approaches are used to treat pain, massage therapy can be an effective complementary treatment.

Keep in mind, there are different types of massage including deep tissue, Swedish, shiatsu and more. Research has not concluded that one type of massage is better than another for treating pain. The most important factor to consider when using massage therapy for pain is to seek a trained and knowledgeable massage therapist.

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