Using massage for chronic pain is one way to interrupt the continuous cycle of pain. In that cycle, initial pain causes tense muscles, poor circulation, and restricted movement, leading to even more discomfort.
Muscles tighten up around painful areas to protect them. If your pain goes away quickly, your muscles relax; however, prolonged pain causes muscles to become habitually tight. Tight muscles can sometimes press on nerves, causing numbness, tingling, or more pain. Relaxing muscles with massage therapy can help end this cycle of tension and pain.
Tight muscles make it more difficult for blood to flow freely, letting metabolic waste produced by cells build up, potentially causing you to feel fatigued and sore. Also, this waste can irritate nerves, causing pain to spread.
Massage relaxes the nervous system, causing the size of blood vessels to increase (called dilation), which improves circulation. The increased blood flow takes away waste and brings in oxygen and nutrients.
When circulation is poor, the affected muscles can develop trigger points. These highly irritable spots can refer pain, tingling, or other sensations to other muscles (for example, trigger points in the abdomen commonly cause low back pain). Specific massage techniques can release trigger points.
Eventually, connective tissue forms in tense areas with poor circulation. Although this process is helpful for healing injuries, the formation of excess tissue (called fibrosis) can "glue" muscle fibers and surrounding connective tissue together in a contracted position that interferes with normal movement. By stretching and kneading the muscles and connective tissue, massage therapy can "unglue" the areas with fibrosis.
Massage for chronic pain stretches tight muscles, releases painful trigger points, and removes irritating waste products that make even simple movements difficult and tiring. By restoring your body's ability to move easily, you may renewed energy for physical activity that further promotes good circulation.
Some massage therapists and some types of massage are better at relieving chronic pain than others. Although a general Swedish-style relaxation massage feels great, you can often get more permanent pain relief from a massage technique especially targeted toward relieving pain, such as neuromuscular technique, deep tissue massage, or myofascial release.
Also be aware that you might experience a cycle: You start receiving massage, feel better, and then have a reversal, often for physical and psychological reasons, including factors such as poor posture habits and stress in your daily life. Continued massage, along with addressing other factors contributing to your pain, can promote your body's natural healing process.
Some people find pain relief with a TENS electrotherapy unit.
For self massage to help relieve chronic pain, see the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.
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