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Massage Therapy Helps Ease Neck and Back Pain

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Massage is a popular therapy used to relieve muscle tension, spasms, inflammation, fluid retention, aches, stiffness, and pain. Other benefits include improved circulation (blood and lymph), general flexibility, range of motion, and increased tissue elasticity (eg, scar tissue).

During treatment, the physical therapist  or massage therapist may include localized massage (eg, low back or neck) as a prelude to exercise. Massage increases circulation and warms muscles and other soft tissues (eg, tendons, ligaments). Another type of massage includes full-body massage, which often leaves the patient feeling relaxed and free of anxiety.

How Does Massage Work to Relax Muscles?
As the therapist uses his or her hands or specialized tools to rhythmically knead, rub, and stroke (effluerage) muscles, circulation is stimulated. Blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients and is key to helping muscles eliminate waste products, such as lactic acid, that may collect in muscles from spasms causing pain.

Following trauma, muscles may act as mini-splints to protect and limit motion, similar to a cast on a broken arm. A typical example is a person who uses a computer for a prolonged time period without taking a break to stretch the neck. The result: a stiff, aching neck and sometimes pain. Taking periodic breaks to rub (mini-massage) and stretch the neck will promote circulation to the muscles.

What Is Swedish Massage?
This is one of the most popular forms of massage in the US. Often, a lotion or oil is used to reduce skin friction. The therapist combines light stroking in one direction with deep pressure in another to relax muscles. The treatment expedites blood flow to flush lactic acid, uric acid, and other waste products from the muscles. Ligaments and tendons are stretched, increasing their suppleness. Nerves are stimulated and relaxed, and stress is alleviated. The overall goal is to relax muscles.

What Is Deep Tissue Massage?
This technique targets chronic muscle tension. The therapist's strokes are slower, using more direct pressure and friction. Depending on the texture of the deeper layers of muscle and tissue felt, the therapist periodically adjusts their hand positions, strokes, and intensity to work the tissues to release tension.

What Is Myofascial Release?
Myofascial release, or soft tissue mobilization, is a therapy used to release tension stored in the fascia. Fascia are sheets of fibrous tissue that encase and support muscles, separating them into groups and layers. Following trauma, the fascia and muscles may shorten restricting blood flow. The techniques used in myofascial release relax muscle tension and break up fascial adhesions.

What Is Trigger Point and Myotherapy?
Trigger points are tiny, tight nodules that form in muscles causing referred pain. Sometimes myofascial pain can be linked to one or more trigger points. The treatment goals include alleviating muscle spasms, improving circulation, and releasing trigger points. The therapist applies direct momentary pressure to a trigger point to cause its release. During the massage, the therapist may return several times to a stubborn trigger point to elicit its release.

As trigger points are released, the therapist stretches the muscle using a technique called Spray and Stretch. This technique incorporates a superficial cooling agent such as Fluori-Methane, a local anesthetic that depresses nerve response. The anesthetic is sprayed over muscles as they are gently stretched, soothing tight muscles.

Are There Other Types of Massage?
There are many types of massage; only a few are mentioned here. Shiatsu is an old oriental therapy based on acupressure, as is Jin Shin Jyutsu. Reiki is a Japanese form of massage that seeks to adjust the body's energy. Rolfing can be uncomfortable; the goal is to adjust the muscle fascia to its fullest extension.

A Word of Caution
Before getting a massage for back pain or neck pain, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to refer you to a licensed or certified massage therapist.

Updated on: 06/09/14
Mary Rodts, DNP
Adjunctive care by a knowledgeable physical therapist with an expertise in the spine can be a great asset for the patient with a spinal problem. Recovery and rehabilitation can be enhanced and hastened.
Graeme Keys, PT, Dip MDT
This article was reviewed by Graeme Keys, PT, Dip MDT, COMT.
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