Does Massage Therapy Help to Relieve Pain?

Published on November 11, 2020 by arothstein

Female sitting at a desk in front of her computer expressing discomfort with back pain

Nothing feels better than a soothing massage after a stressful week, but beyond its relaxing effects are undeniable pain-relieving benefits that make it a drug-free treatment option in the fight against chronic stiffness and injuries. A majority of visits to doctors are related to pain, and at least 50 million Americans suffer from chronic discomfort, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With the opioid crisis, massage has become a supplemental pain management therapy whose time has come.

What Causes Pain?

Humans are programmed to feel pain. When your fingers touch a hot surface, nociceptors beneath the skin send a danger signal to the brain producing a muscle contraction that pulls your hand away, it’s a defense mechanism. But chronic pain and discomfort from acute injuries are different.

Pain associated with strains and sprains is due to inflammation and the build-up of scar tissue, but why discomfort persists after injuries have healed remains a mystery. Nerves, brain chemicals, lifestyle factors, medication side effects and even genes all play a role, but the good news is that massage effectively relieves aches regardless of the cause.

Doctors recommend massage for many conditions:

How Does Massage Relieve Pain?

Eighty-seven percent of people surveyed believe massage therapy can relieve pain, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). It achieves this remarkable success by reducing tension, improving circulation, breaking up scar tissue, relieving sore muscles, managing trigger points, reducing inflammation, and boosting feel good brain chemicals.

Reducing Tension on Compensating Muscles

When the body is injured, it finds ways to adapt. It’s not unusual, for example, for someone with a hip sprain to feel pain in the opposite hip and lower back because those muscles are compensating for the injury. Massaging the affected areas not only reduces pain but improves mobility while the damage improves, making it less likely that someone will overuse a healing muscle and delay its return to normal.

The same principle applies to treating chronic muscle pain due to fibromyalgia and joint stiffness from arthritis. Keeping opposing muscle groups limber and the musculature supporting joints strong reduces overall discomfort.

Improving Circulation

Massage improves circulation in two ways. First, kneading techniques move fluids, including blood and lymph, to or from affected areas depending on the treatment goal. When soft tissue is injured, inflammation causes localized fluid build-up, speeding necessary oxygen and nutrients to the wounded area. But if swelling lingers too long, it impairs the later stages of recovery and causes discomfort. Pushing fluid away restores normal range of motion.

Patients with lymphatic drainage disorders also benefit from mobilizing fluid. Too much lymph in limbs not only causes pain, but it can also lead to skin ulcers.

Secondly, the ability of massage to improve circulation makes exercise more comfortable. Movement is the best way to keep blood and lymph moving freely.

Breaking Up Scar Tissue

A build-up of scar tissue from an incision or injury can cause pain by pressing on the surrounding muscle. Collagen fibers form bundles, creating knots that are palpable just under the surface of the skin. Massage loosens those fibers, breaking up what feels like uncomfortable lumps where injuries once occurred.

Relieving Sore Muscles

Muscle aches aren’t devastating injuries like broken bones, but they can be debilitating for performance athletes. A simple sprain or soreness from overexercising can set a training schedule back months. When a competition is on the line, massage helps relieve pain and restores muscle function when it’s needed most.

Massage also benefits people who sit at a desk for long periods. Shoulders tend to hunch over time, causing neck, shoulder and upper back soreness. Massage not only relieves the discomfort, but it facilitates otherwise painful postural changes by loosening the muscles required to sit erect.

Managing Trigger Points

Trigger points are the result of muscle injuries or repetitive strain. When muscle fibers are overstretched, tiny tears in the soft tissue occur. If they don’t heal properly, the fibers can twist, and form knots known as trigger points that can restrict circulation and cause pain.

Trigger points affect mobility by making muscles stiff, reducing range of motion. This prevents muscles from relaxing, causing them to fatigue quickly and recover from exercise more slowly. In severe cases, it can cause spasms.

In some locations, painful trigger points can also affect the balance between muscle groups, causing joint misalignment. Regular massage helps alleviate both pain and stiffness.

Reducing Inflammation

Scientists have made a remarkable discovery about inflammation and massage, some of the benefits are genetic. Athletes that are subjected to a grueling workout find more signs of cellular repair in post-workout tissue samples than in pre-workout samples.

Doctors have long known that exercise activates genes controlling cell repair, what is noteworthy is that massage improves the genetic response. Genes responsible for building mitochondria, our cellular engines, increase while genes associated with inflammation decrease.

Boosting Feel-Good Brain Chemicals

The body has a natural way of quelling pain with endorphins. These opioid-like chemicals are produced by the brain and stored in the pituitary gland where they’re released during times of physical and emotional stress. Deep tissue massage has been shown to increase endorphin release, helping muscles relax.

Other feel-good hormones, including dopamine and serotonin, rise during a massage, boosting mood and mitigating pain by altering patients’ perception of its severity. Clients who report feeling cheerful and optimistic tend to manage pain better.

Massage as Adjunct Pain Management Therapy

There’s rarely a single cure for pain. More often, it takes a variety of approaches to achieve the best outcomes. The goal is to use as many non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive methods as possible as part of an overall pain management plan.

Massage is typically used in combination with physical therapy, stretching, heat and cold, surgery, and analgesics.

Physical Therapy

Managing patients’ pain is a challenge for physical therapists. While a certain amount of discomfort is an expected part of the process, clients don’t participate at optimal levels when they hurt. Massage helps by decreasing pain not directly associated with an injury, improving both attitudes toward physical therapy and resiliency.

Stretching

Stretching has effects similar to massage, and it can be done at home. It relieves stiffness, improves flexibility and enhances circulation. Regular massage magnifies those benefits by improving those processes and adding a pain relief component. It is called the dynamic duo.

Heat and Cold

Heat and cold therapies can be as effective as oral pain relievers. This causes vasodilation, a widening of blood vessels that improves circulation and speeds metabolic byproducts out of the system. Nutrients and oxygen rush to sore tissues, encouraging healing. Temperatures over 104 degrees are proven to block superficial pain receptors, easing away aches.

Cold is particularly effective for reducing inflammation after an acute injury. By reducing blood flow to the affected area, it limits swelling and the pain that comes with it.

Surgery

Some pain can be relieved only through surgery, joint replacements are a good example. Post-surgical discomfort, however, is a significant issue, lasting weeks and often months after discharge.

Physical therapy speeds rehabilitation while analgesics manage the most severe pain, but lingering aches and medication side effects can set back recovery. As an adjunct therapy, massage is shown to reduce post-operative pain intensity and improve participation in activities of daily living.

Analgesics

Analgesics are among the most controversial therapies for pain. They work, but the side effects and dependency potential can be profound. Opioids, once the gold standard for severe pain relief, are responsible for millions of addictions nationwide and are now prescribed only for limited use.

The safest pain relievers are over the counter options, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, but even those are not without risks. A black box warning for cardiovascular events has been added to NSAIDs like ibuprofen, and GI irritation, including ulcers, is a known side effect. Acetaminophen, better known by its brand name Tylenol, can cause liver damage and is responsible for more drug overdoses than any other medicine in America, so new daily dose limits were recently imposed.

Analgesics can be a safe part of a pain management program. Still, as awareness of their unwanted effects grows, doctors are increasingly turning to non-pharmacological interventions, including physical therapy and massage. Among chronic pain patients who take analgesics daily, most agree that massage results in less overall use.

Final Thoughts

Massage is a proven pain-reduction treatment embraced worldwide by both mainstream and alternative medicine. It’s a billion-dollar industry and growing because it works. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job opportunities for massage therapists will rise more than 21-percent in the next ten years as more patients seek services. For motivated self-starters with an enthusiasm for wellness, now is an unprecedented time to train for a massage therapy career.

Did learning about how massage therapy helps to relieve pain interest you? Want to learn more about a massage therapy program? Broadview University developed the Massage Therapy certificate program with your future in mind. The certificate program is designed to emphasize skills and knowledge for entry-level employment as a massage therapist. The Massage Therapy program at Broadview University prepares students to take the MBLEx licensing exam offered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Board (FSMTB). Upon completion of the program, students will be eligible for professional membership in such associations as the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and the Association of Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP).

Contact us today to learn more about becoming a massage therapist.

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