Massage: How and Why?

Massage has been around pretty much forever. History documents it back to Ancient Egypt, China, and India. Nearly every civilization used it as a way to ease pain and heal injuries. It is basic human instinct. When you bump yourself against the table you rub the bruise. When your neck aches, your hand automatically finds it to work out the kinks.

But why does it work?

The detailed answer is long and complex, but the short and simple answer is massage works to loosen the connective tissues in the body.

Bones may hold your body up and muscles may make it move, but the connective tissue (fascia) is literally what keeps you together. Fascia is a web of protein fibers and a liquidy gel that makes up the spaces in between the cells. It holds cells together, and binds them together to form the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. If you have ever prepared chicken for dinner and seen the thin white or clear film that you had to peel off, then you know what fascia is.

Fascia helps in the repair of damaged muscles and bones. It can also change consistency. It can move from a gel-like state to a liquidy state and back again. Its consistency depends largely on how much a body moves and its overall temperature. The warmer the muscles are, the more liquid the fascia. The cooler they are, the more gel-like it becomes.

Problems arise when the tissue becomes too enthusiastic when repairing damaged muscles and cells. It can cause web-like adhesions that restrict movement. When a body also stays immobile for extended periods (say, working for hours at a desk or stuck in bed due to an injury) the fascia reverts to its gel-like state. The result is the feeling of stiffness in muscles and joints, which makes further mobility even more difficult.

Massage works by targeting the adhesions within the soft tissue to coax them out. The various modalities (deep tissue, myofascial release, trigger point therapy) and strokes (effleurage – those long, flowing strokes; petrissage – percussion, and kneading) therapists use all are designed to encourage the fascia to melt from gel to liquid, to warm up and encourage movement.

So, because of its effect on the body’s fascia, massage can be ideal for helping muscles recover from intense workout or injuries. It can also help minimize scars and adhesions from surgeries. It can increase joint flexibility and help reduce spasms and cramping.

Because our body isn’t just physical, but emotional as well, massage has deeper reaching effects. Because so many of our physical problems can be brought on by chronic stress, massage helps relieve tension and stress, thereby helping to reduce anxiety and depression. It can also help with fatigue by enhancing the quality of your sleep.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what kind of massage you receive, so long as you leave the session feeling like there is more space and movement within your body and with your mind at ease. It is good to “shop around”, to find a style and practitioner that suits you and your needs best. That way, you will be more open and comfortable in receiving the multitude of health benefits that await.

“History of Massage Therapy,” Natural Healers:

“The Science of Massage: Soft Tissue Techniques,” (2007) Body Sense Magazine. American Bodywork and Massage Professionals.

“The Benefits of Massage,” American Bodywork and Massage Professionals.