If you're tense, sore, or generally stressed out --in other words, if you feel pretty much like everyone else these days -- it might be time to put yourself in the hands of a professional massage therapist. Research shows that therapeutic massage can be a boon for both your mental and physical health. A single session can relax your body and help you sleep better at night. Go more often, and you just might be able to overcome certain types of chronic pain. Without a doubt, you'll feel less stressed and more comfortable. There are many types of massage out there, so you'll have to look around to find an approach that works best for you.
What happens during a massage?
No matter what type of massage you've decided to try, your therapist will probably give you a brief rundown on what to expect and ask about your health issues. You'll have a chance to get undressed in private (underwear is usually optional). You'll drape yourself with a towel and lay face-down on the massage table. When you're ready, the massage therapist comes in and gets to work. The therapist will begin kneading and pressing your muscles, often with the help of a lotion or oil to make everything run more smoothly.
During the massage, you should give your therapist plenty of feedback, especially if you've never worked with him or her before. Speak up if something feels painful or if you want extra attention on a particular spot.
What are the different types of massage?
Massage therapists will often use several different kinds of pressure and motion in a single section. Swedish massage, for example, combines long, gliding strokes with deep, circular strokes and rapid shakes. In both acupressure and shiatsu massage, the therapist applies finger pressure to strategic spots all over the body. A therapist who specializes in Rolfing will provide a very deep massage that, according to practitioners, reaches the tissue that covers internal organs.
How does it help?
Massage can improve health in several different ways. For starters, it increases blood flow to the muscles and brain, which both speeds healing and improves your state of mind. It also relaxes the muscles, which encourages the brain to release fewer stress hormones, the chemicals that make you tense and nervous. Because stress can intensify pain, relaxation can relieve aches almost anywhere in the body, even parts that aren't getting massaged. Massage also seems to release natural painkillers as an added bonus.
Is massage safe?
Massage is generally quite safe. But, as with just about any kind of therapy, you should talk to your doctor if you have any kind of serious illness. Massage -- especially a deep massage -- may not be safe if you have osteoporosis, certain types of cancer, or heart disease. So check first before you climb onto the table.
How can I find a qualified massage therapist?
Many states require professional massage therapists to earn a state license, which entails 500 hours of training and a written exam. You can also visit the site of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (http://www.ncbtmb.org) to find a credentialed professional in your area.
The American Massage Therapy Association offers tips on what to look for in a massage therapist, an explanation of massage therapy credentials, and a database of qualified practitioners at its site (www.amtamassage.org/index.html).
Of course, it's always good to ask friends and family for a recommendation.
Cherkin DC, et al. Randomized trial comparing traditional Chinese medical acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and self-care education for chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med 2001 Apr 23;161(8):1081-8.
Kim MS, et al. Effects of hand massage on anxiety in cataract surgery using local anesthesia. J Cataract Refract Surg 2001 Jun;27(6):884-90.
Field T, et al. Moderate versus light pressure massage therapy leads to greater weight gain in preterm infants. Infant Behav Dev 2006 Dec;29(4):574-8.
The National MS Society. Massage and bodywork therapy. 2010. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/treatments/complementary--alternative-medicine/massage-and-bodywork-therapy/index.aspx