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Complementary Medicine

What is Massage?: Information You Knead to Know

Massage is a manual therapy that manipulates the soft tissues and decreases muscle tension, pain, stress and depression.

However, when posing the question, "What is massage?," it is common to hear the following replies: “Massage is such a luxury." "Ah, massage, it is so relaxing." "Massage is something I treat myself to on special occasions." While all of these statements capture the idea of massage as a way to relax and to treat ourselves, none come close to touching on the essence of massage and its therapeutic benefits to body, mind and spirit.

Therapeutic Benefits

Massage makes you feel and perform better. Massage has the following benefits:

Depending on the techniques used, massage can:

Its many healing benefits are important in our high-tech world because of our basic human need to be nurtured through touch. Touching and being touched is instinctual. For example, an injured animal will tend its wounds by licking or rubbing, a mother will comfort her crying child by stroking its head and patting its back, and a person with a toothache will rub and press the painful area to relieve congestion and pain.

The Power of Touch

The simple act of placing the hands on the body can itself encourage a person to thrive. Many studies have illustrated that without physical touch babies (human or animal) will not thrive and may not even survive. Touch also has a positive effect on caregivers. For example, mothers who regularly have a great deal of physical closeness with their babies experience postpartum depression to a far lesser degree, and elderly caregivers feel a decrease in stress, anxiety and depression when they touch and are touched.

Academic Evidence

A landmark study conducted on rhesus monkeys by Harry Harlow in the 1950s noted that monkeys separated from their mothers soon after birth showed a greater need for tactile comfort than for eating. Since then, many studies have illustrated how touch and massage can assist infants, especially babies born prematurely, to survive, gain weight and thrive. It has also been shown that the caregivers who massaged the infants benefitted as well.

Types of Massage

Today there are a myriad of bodywork modalities including:

Therapeutic Massage

Therapeutic massage is designed to treat a specific condition, and an licensed or certified professional is trained to assist with soft tissue injuries and dysfunctions, as well as support general recovery. Extensive training enables the therapist to take a thorough history, identify contraindications (reasons to not massage) and make referrals to and receive referrals from other health professionals such as physicians, osteopaths, chiropractors and dentists. A healthcare provider can write a prescription for massage therapy and the therapist or practitioners who fills the prescription may be able to bill insurance groups and workers' compensation for the therapy services. There are individuals that are not formally trained and do not have a license or certification. Those individuals can perform a "spa style" massage for relaxation purposes. The fees charged are comparable even though the knowledge base and skills differ. If you have no health issues, want a basic massage and do not anticipate needing any therapeutic work, obtaining the services of these practitioners is an option. However, if a therapeutic need crops up during a session, a referral should be made to a trained and sanctioned practitioner.

Find a Massage Therapist

When you are looking for the best practitioner to meet your emotional, physical and spiritual needs you need to do your homework. Just as you would check the credentials of your traditional or naturopathic physician, dentist, or chiropractor so you can be confident in them, you should learn as much as you can about your massage therapist or practitioner. A few questions to ask include:

Checking the credentials of your massage therapist may seem like a daunting task, but there are several easy steps to take. You can contact an association that represents the field of massage. The two main massage associations in the US are:

The AMTA can provide not only the educational and certification or licensure requirements of all the states in the US, but can assist you in finding a practitioner in your region with the qualifications and advanced training and certifications that you require.

Be Well

To feel better, relieve any discomfort, decrease stress levels, feel more relaxed and have a body that functions more efficiently, schedule regular appointments with your favorite massage therapist. Massage is not just for the rich, nor is it a treat reserved just for a special occasion. With the growing research base and the recognition of the benefits of massage in the healthcare arena, massage is a "kneaded" component of your wellness regimen.

Karen Ellen Fink, RN, BSN, LMT, CLL is the Massage Therapy Coordinator at the Cleveland Clinic. She is part of The Healing Services Team, a multidisciplinary team that provides an array of Integrative Healing Modalities to inpatients and their families. She is an instructor of Massage at Lakeland Community College and will be teaching the course entitled Manual Therapies of the Hospitalized Patient that she developed for The Cleveland Clinic. Karen provides CEU offerings for the nursing and the medical communities and is regional speaker with topics including stress reduction, self massage, caring for caregivers, laughter and health and manual therapies for the medically challenged client.

This article was originally published in Balanced Living Magazine, January - February, 2005, and used with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 19, 2013

Tanya I Edwards, MD, MEd Tanya I Edwards, MD, MEd
Formerly, Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University