Massage for the Treatment of Chronic Pain

According to the National Institutes for Health, more than one-third of all adults will experience chronic pain at some point in their lives. Chronic pain is pain that persists or returns for varying periods of time (usually longer than six months). Chronic pain often involves deep somatic and visceral tissues. The painful area can be indefinite or poorly localized, and the quality of pain may change over time.


Massage is the second most sought-after form of pain relief, after pain medication, and is a safe and effective way to relieve pain in both elderly and young populations. In fact, pain management programs at hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other facilities are increasingly adopting massage as a tool to combat chronic pain.


Clients experiencing chronic pain should be under the care of a physician who will investigate the cause of the pain. Studies suggest that massage can relieve chronic back pain, tension, and post-traumatic headaches more effectively than other common therapies, and reduces pain and muscle spasms, such as those associated with heart bypass surgery.


Massage increases the release of endorphins, helping decrease the perception of pain and the accompanying stress, anxiety, and depression that are associated with it.


For your client, getting through a day with chronic pain can feel overwhelming. At night, pain, and the stress related to it, can keep them awake, making them less able to face the next day. Worry often accompanies chronic pain, regarding its source and what can be done to make it go away. Chronic pain can affect an individual’s ability to work, and treatment can be a financial drain. Normal activities may become difficult, and fears of dependency on others for either financial support or physical care may exacerbate feelings of stress and depression, adding to the pain.


In some cases, injury or illness also produces a pain cycle, a complicated series of events that reinforce one another, producing chronic or constant pain over a long period of time. Chronic pain is a heavy emotional weight. It is associated with a substantial amount of stress, and can take a heavy toll on an individual’s emotional and physical stamina, wearing their patience.


Massage can be effective in pain management, interrupting the cycle of pain through the release of endorphins, and alleviating pain to a substantial degree. Reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and lessening the need for pharmaceutical intervention are significant benefits for clients with chronic pain, but massage may also help people learn to cope more effectively with their pain.


By treating the whole body, rather than a localized area, massage can reorient the individual, increasing awareness of the body, and helping them focus on something outside of the pain.


Chronic pain causes the muscles around any painful area to “tense up.” This action, known as “guarding,” supports and protects the damaged area. Usually, over time, as the muscles relax, the pain is relieved.


With persistent or chronic pain, muscles contract but do not release. In their contracted state, muscles can press on nerves, causing numbness, tingling, and more pain. Massage can help stretch the muscles, and stimulates the nervous system, which can also help relax tense muscles. The more pain we experience, the more diminished is our capacity for any kind of movement or exercise. The cycle of pain continues when the reduction in movement decreases circulation and flexibility and increases the pain.


The cycle of pain also encourages the development of trigger points at areas with poor circulation. These points become increasingly irritated, and refer pain and tingling sensations from the muscles and connective tissues to other parts of the body. Referred pain responds well to trigger-point therapy, sustained pressure, and muscle stretching. Very sensitive trigger points can be numbed by applying ice to the area before massage.


Massage helps chronically tight or tense muscles experience more efficient blood circulation. When muscles are tense, they receive less oxygen and are less able to carry away waste products manufactured by the body. Inflammation, as well as normal muscle function, contributes to the accumulation of waste, and can also irritate nerves in the tense area, causing pain to spread.


The cycle of pain and poor circulation can also encourage a build-up of collagen fibers, the beginnings of scar tissue, as collagen fibers “glue” the muscles into their shortened state. Massage helps to increase circulation, rehydrate, and soften the contracted muscles and fascia, helping to “unglue” the fibers to which collagen has adhered.


As massage relaxes the nervous system, blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow, which flushes away the waste products from the muscles. As circulation is increased, healing oxygen and nutrients are directed back to the muscle tissues.


Massage helps restore normal movement by increasing circulation, releasing trigger points, removing waste products, and stretching shortened or “glued” muscles. Massage can help a person feel better, increasing their level of energy and desire for more physical activity. This enhanced feeling of well-being counteracts the effects of stress, and can increase one’s awareness of how and where the body is holding tension as a result of stress.


As the #2 solution for pain – and the #1 non-medication solution for pain – massage is a wonderful way to relieve your patients chronic pain.  It makes for a fantastic talking point when networking with doctors and it can be a lucrative niche, should you choose to follow it. Do you treat clients with chronic pain?  What tips can you share?  Comment below.