That Touch of Healing

You’re resting comfortably on a terrycloth-covered table. Soft music is playing in the background, the lights are dimmed and the smell of lavender fills the air and sets the mood for relaxation.

The stresses of your day and the aches and pains of age start to vanish by the sheer, warm touch of a hand. Not just any hand, mind you, but one well-trained and licensed to help you escape from the pressures of your world, if only for an hour.

Massage therapy is not a new concept. It has a long and deeply rooted history in many cultures around the world. And while it’s more commonly known as a pampering technique to help the stressed-out relax, growing evidence shows more people are realizing its benefits beyond relaxation and making massage a part of their health care regimen.

According to a 2011 study conducted by the American College of Physicians (ACP), massage may be more effective than the usual medical interventions for better pain management and improving function in patients with chronic low back problems. Although the ACP notes there is limited evidence backing up the study results, it still recommends relaxation massage as one form of treatment for chronic low back pain.

Stephan Esser is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Mayo Clinic in Florida. He says massage is any kind of movement of tissue — skin, muscles and tendons — for the improvement of health or function, an ancient therapeutic treatment that’s becoming more widely used in mainstream medicine.

“For centuries, the Egyptians and Chinese have known the many health benefits of touch therapy,” Esser said. “And massage as we know it today evolved from those ancient methods.”

Some of the health benefits reaped by having a massage include reduced inflammation, eased stiffness, lessened pain and lowered blood pressure.

Massage can be performed by a licensed therapist using different methods such as heated stones, essential oils and even water through a technique called aqua or hydrotherapy massage, in which warm water is jetted from special hoses.

Also known as touch therapy, massage can bring about powerful physiological changes in the body that affect us emotionally and physically, Esser said.

“The human touch can elicit feelings of calm, peace, tranquility — feelings of safety that help to facilitate healing and health,” Esser said. “On the physiologic level, part of this process is the release of ‘feel-good’ hormones like serotonin and dopamine.”

Results of a study on massage therapy published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that having frequent Swedish massages — once or twice a week — does more than just help reduce stress levels. The study suggests it could increase disease-fighting white blood cells circulating in the body.

Esser noted that, over the last few decades, the science has become even more clear regarding the physiologic mechanisms for the relaxation and calming effects of massage.

“In a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, it was reported that cortisol, a primary stress-related hormone, is reduced through regular use of massage,” Esser said.

“On average, these studies demonstrate a 31 percent reduction in cortisol and up to a 30 percent increase in the hormones serotonin and dopamine that bring about feelings of calmness, contentment and joy. So, the relaxation you feel after a massage isn’t just a feeling, it’s something real going on in your body.”

Esser said the results from the study have been shown in diverse populations from newborn infants to people with chronic conditions, and even those with mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Jacksonville resident Lisa Klueppel, who works out nearly three hours a day, five days a week, said with that kind of schedule, a monthly massage is a must. The 34-year-old social media manager for Nemours Health Systems teaches a variety of high-impact classes at area YMCAs — sometimes back-to-back. Also, she participates in two or three classes by other instructors, and those classes become her workout. When she’s not in the gym, you can find her cycling on the streets around Northeast Florida.

“As someone who does a lot of resistance training, plyometrics and high-impact cardio, I need the muscle recovery and release that a massage offers,” said Klueppel. “I like a lot of pressure, so I prefer a deep-tissue massage, but when my muscles get so tight and I need to work out issues with my iliotibial [IT] band [a thick band of fibrous tissue that starts at the hip and runs along the outside of the leg], I opt for a sports massage that incorporates more stretching in the mix.”

Active in sports throughout his life, Mike Maloy is a licensed massage therapist. He played college football for Boise State University and looked for a natural, non-medicinal way to help his body recover from a brutal game or a strenuous workout. That’s when he discovered massage therapy.

“I was pleased with the way I felt after a massage and wanted to share my experiences with like-minded people,” said Maloy.

Today, Maloy splits his time between two Massage Envy locations at the Beaches and also works with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the season.

“Massage therapy is a technique to manipulate muscles and tissues to aid in a variety of health issues such as reducing stress, blood pressure and pain from an injury,” said Maloy.

Maloy said when he first meets a client, he likes to develop a list of goals — “a timeline of action for therapy.”

“It’s important to know what the client would like the result to be,” Maloy said. “If it’s to promote healing of a persistent injury or to improve circulation, I’ll have a better idea of what the client wants to get from a massage. My goal is to leave the client feeling better, not worse, and that means talking about it up front.”

Mayo’s Esser agreed.

“It’s important to know what you want from massage to establish realistic goals,” said Esser. “Make sure your goals and the therapist’s skills are also compatible. This will set you and the therapist up for success.”

However, Esser advised, those who seek massage for pain treatment should have a baseline examination by a physician

before proceeding.

“There are some cases where massage — depending on the type used — can be counterproductive,” said Esser. “For example, open wounds, a history of blood clots, fractures, burns, acute flare-ups of arthritis, some cancer patients and pain from an unknown source should be addressed in advance, and that’s why a baseline evaluation is important.”

Atlantic Beach resident Richard Salkin, a self-employed fulltime freelance writer and consultant, has been getting massages about once a month for 15 years. He said it’s part therapy and part pampering.

“I work a hectic schedule, mostly seated at my desk, and no matter how much you pay attention to ergonomics, there are going to be knots and tension,” Salkin said. “After I have a massage, it’s like coming out of a really good yoga class with that glassy-eyed, natural buzz. It’s definitely a stress-reliever.”

“Bottom line, when someone comes in for a massage, they want to feel better than when they walked in,” Maloy said. “That’s the goal of a massage therapist, too.”