Massage Therapy for Chronic Pain

By Gary Olsen, Tucson Family Wellness

You’re looking for a massage therapist to help you reduce pain. How do you find someone who will be able to help? Both massage skills and people skills that are important qualities to assess when in searching for the right fit.

How does human touch work to block pain? The “pain gate” theory of massage therapy offers an idea. In this theory, there are two nerve filaments passing through a hole or a gate: a small one and a big one. The small one carries the pain signal. The big one carries the touch signal. The sensation of being touched engages that nerve bundle. As that nerve becomes stimulated it fills out and takes up all the room through the gate, blocking the pain nerve signal. So touch stops the pain signal at that gate and the signal does not get to the central nervous system. This is why gentle touch feels so good. Touch soothes pain away. Massage works.

The two most important factors in finding a good massage therapist are connection and communication. You want somebody who is paying attention to you—someone who’s listening. Someone who is observing, feeling, and directly connecting with what’s going on with you and your body. Someone who will be able to help you feel safe and comfortable so your body can heal.

I use pressure adjustments and communication as a part of healing. I like to show people after finding the pain point how the body reacts to high-intensity pain and lower-intensity awareness of the area. Most people discover the body tightens to protect itself in the high-intensity state. But when the body releases into low-intensity awareness, there is no pain. Your massage therapist should work with you and allow you to choose the level of pressure. Communicate about pressure and how it affects your body in relation to pain.

Types of massage

Let’s go over some specific types of massage therapy, what they are addressing and how they’re beneficial. My massage therapy training started with Swedish massage, a gentler type of massage, which has many benefits for health, relaxation, and reducing pain. Many of the benefits of massages happen through communication with the nervous system, creating a sense of safety and pleasure. Swedish massage, which uses long gliding strokes, is great for that as well as increasing circulation, reducing swelling, and inflammation.

Neuromuscular massage therapy was developed specifically for reducing pain and increasing range of motion and function. Neuromuscular therapy finds trigger points in the muscles and referral pain that is created elsewhere in the body. It’s a trigger point if pain shows up somewhere else in the body after applying pressure to that point. The trigger points have been researched and mapped out by Dr. Janet Travell and there are great reference books available if you’re interested in learning more.

Myofascial therapy works with the connective tissue system in relation to posture, movement, and pain. Myofascial work can stretch, lengthen, and release the muscle groups that are holding short and tight. If there were a tug of war happening between two muscle groups on each side of a joint, the one that is winning is the one you should treat to lengthen and release. Pain shows up on the losing side where it is over-stretched. Myofascial work can range from very intense to very subtle and gentle work. It is very effective in making change.

Cranio-sacral therapy is another very gentle, subtle work targeting the parasympathetic nervous system that can facilitate deep profound healing. I encourage people to test it out.

Massage therapy may be covered by insurance, such as after a work injury or car accident. I highly recommend you get medical coverage added as a very inexpensive rider on your auto insurance policy. Massage therapy can be a great modality to get relief from pain and injuries.

Get a massage and see what works for you and your body. Building a relationship with some massage therapists over time can become a great support in your life in managing pain and stress. Good luck and enjoy discovering what works for your body in massage therapy!

Gary Olsen has been practicing massage therapy since 1995 and primarily works with people dealing with stress, pain, and injuries. Mr. Olsen is contracted to work on-site in a very large engineering and production company to reduce workplace injuries and workman’s compensation costs. He also works with many people after car accidents and work injuries. In these cases insurance pays for the treatment and recovery with no cost to patients. He loves teaching people to do self-care in stress and pain reduction in workshops and one-on-one care.