Massage therapy is defined as the manipulation of soft tissue in the body with the aim of relieving and preventing pain, stress, and muscle spasms. In addition, massage therapy works to improve blood circulation and the body's ability to recover from illness and injury. There are many physical as well as psychological benefits to massage therapy, which will be discussed later in this section.
The practice of massage therapy has been around for thousands of years. Even ancient Greek and Roman civilizations recognized the many benefits of massage and often participated in massage after exercising or competing in athletic games. While massage therapy is considered an alternative treatment, many conventional physicians now encourage patients to seek out massage therapy for illness and injury. According to a survey in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, there are forty-nine conventional medical schools that offer courses in massage therapy. Furthermore, conventional doctors refer patients to massage therapists for a wide variety of problems, including allergies, asthma, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, insomnia, stress, bronchitis, chronic pain, and constipation.
The Different Types of Massage
There are many types of massage therapy, and each one uses a different technique to achieve a similar result. These include, but are not limited to, Swedish massage, reflexology, shiatsu and acupressure, and sports massage. Swedish massage, perhaps the most well known and popular type of massage, combines kneading
Boxer Evander Holyfield receives a pre-event massage from one of his trainers. (
. Reproduced by permission.)
and stroking of the muscles with movement of the joints. Reflexology focuses on certain points on the hands and feet that are connected to other areas on the body. Shiatsu and acupressure are Asian techniques that apply pressure to certain points on the body that correspond with acupuncture meridians. Meridians are the channels through which the body's energy, or Qi, flows. Finally, sports massage focuses on improving an athlete's performance, preparing an athlete for a specific event, and helping the particular muscles that are used in a certain sport.
The Physical Benefits of Massage Therapy
There are many physical benefits to massage therapy. Massage therapy's rhythmic movements and applied pressure help increase one's blood circulation. It also helps blood vessels to expand, allowing more blood to pass through them. In addition to increased blood circulation, massage therapy works to increase lymph (a white substance that carries the body's toxins away) flow. Since lymph, unlike blood, does not move on its own, it must be stimulated through muscle movement, or exercise and massage. The increased flow of blood and lymph has a positive effect on the body's cells, which contribute to a person's overall health. More blood means more oxygen and more lymph means less waste and toxins.
THE INS AND OUTS OF SPORTS MASSAGE
As professional and amateur athletes strive to reach their peak performance, sports massage therapy works to keep their bodies in top shape. Massage helps athletes perform better, avoid injuries, and recover more quickly from minor injuries. The three main areas of sports massage therapy are maintenance massage, event massage, and rehabilitation massage.
Maintenance massage is used to improve an athlete's flexibility and range of motion. A trained therapist knows how to focus on the particular muscle groups that different types of athletes use most often. This allows athletes to train more effectively and prevent possible injuries.
Event massage includes two categories: Preevent massage and post-event massage. Pre-event massage helps athletes prepare for a big event by increasing their blood circulation and releasing any muscle tension that may be present before a big event. Post-event massage reduces muscle spasms that may occur and helps athletes' muscle tissues recover from the event. This allows athletes to be ready to compete in the next event. Both pre-event and postevent massage enable athletes to compete at their best while reducing the risk of injury.
Rehabilitation massage is used when athletes suffer from injuries, such as muscle tears, cramps, bruises, and aches. Even the best athletes have injuries, and it is a sports massage therapist's job to help athletes recover quickly. Massage is used simultaneously with proper medical care and helps the muscle tissue heal by removing lymph fluid (a white substance that carries the body's toxins away). Finally, rehabilitation massage can make the recovery process less painful for the athlete, which helps to restore the mental edge that athletes need in order to perform their best.
Massage can be particularly important when a person is involved in an exercise regimen or participates in a sport on a regular basis. When muscles are being used more often, there is an increase in certain acids that build up in the tissue if the muscles do not get the oxygen they need. If these acids remain in the muscle tissue, cramping, soreness, and fatigue generally follow. Massage can help to drain the muscle tissues of these acids and thus help muscles recover more quickly.
A massage therapist works a client's lower body. (Photograph by
Paul Biddle. Custom Medical Stock Photo
. Reproduced by permission.)
Another important aspect of overall health is good nutrition. Giving the body the proper vitamins and nutrients will help it function properly. Massage therapy can increase the benefits of good nutrition by helping the nutrients reach their destination: the cells. As mentioned, massage expands the blood vessels, which increases circulation. By having a clear and open path, nutrients have an easier time finding the cells that work to keep the body healthy.
The Psychological Benefits of Massage Therapy
In addition to physical benefits, there are many psychological, or mental, benefits to massage therapy. The most obvious benefit is stress relief. Stress affects everyone, young and old alike. Frustrations can build in many aspects of a person's life, whether it be job, family, friends, or school. Stress prompts the release of certain hormones that cause blood vessels to shrink. The shrinking of blood vessels results in poor circulation, which can greatly harm a person's overall health. Research has indicated that stress is a main cause of certain illnesses, such as migraine headaches, depression, high blood pressure, constipation, and other digestive disorders. Massage therapy can help to reduce the risk of these illnesses. Massage therapy also helps people release repressed, or built-up, emotions, which can result in an overall sense of relaxation and peace.