Most people consider massage therapy to be a luxury, like hair-styling or manicures. They are for pampering and relaxation, and not much else. In truth, massage therapy actually has a lot of health benefits beyond just relaxation. Massage therapy affects multiple organs and systems in your body, and can help improve your overall health.
The Health Benefits of Massage
Massage affects three major systems in your body, the integumentary, the muscular, and the nervous system; and by affecting those three systems, massage also impacts all the other systems in your body.
You see, the human body relies on homeostasis to function properly. Although all the systems of the body are categorized separately, they all work together and influence each other. When one system is out of whack, it can cause problems in other, seemingly unrelated systems.
This connection between the systems is most prevalent with the nervous system.
The Nervous System
The nervous system is categorized in several different ways. You have the central nervous system, which is your brain and spinal cord; but it’s also divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which trigger a series of hormonal responses that can affect your entire body.
When the sympathetic branch of your nervous system is activated it triggers the “fight or flight” response, which causes a chain of events throughout your entire body.
· Your adrenal glands release the stimulant hormone adrenaline; which
· Causes your heart to beat faster; and,
· Also causes your blood vessels to constrict; which
· Raises your blood pressure.
· The faster heart rate also triggers faster and shallower breathing; and
· Muscle tension, and
· Pupil dilation.
· Adrenaline also causes your digestive tract to shut down, and
· Triggers your pancreas to release a hormone called glucagon; which
· Triggers your liver to release emergency sugar into your blood stream.
As you can see, when you are stressed out, multiple organ systems get into the act, which can throw your body out of homeostasis. This is why people usually experience pain, nausea, headaches, and other physical ailments when they are stressed. This is also why prolonged stress can actually be dangerous to your health.
This reaction occurs no matter what triggers the sympathetic branch. Someone jumping out and yelling “boo!” at you will create the same response as being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s the duration of the trigger that makes a difference.
The parasympathetic branch of your nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic. Where the sympathetic is “fight or flight,” the parasympathetic is “rest and digest.” The parasympathetic branch should be active a majority of the time, with the sympathetic only chiming in during emergencies. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, everyday stress keeps the sympathetic branch working overtime, which is where massage therapy comes in.
Massage Therapy and the Nervous System
Massage therapy effectively stops the fight or flight response and helps your body return to rest and digest. Massage therapy:
· Reduces your heart rate;
· Relaxes and expands your blood vessels;
· Relaxes your muscles; and
· Helps your breathing return to normal.
It also triggers several hormonal processes to counter the effects of adrenaline on your organs and tissues.
Experiencing the Benefits
The best way to experience the benefits of massage is by going to a professional massage therapists, who have the training, experience, and expertise to give you the most benefit. However, massage isn’t always cheap, and therefore isn’t always accessible to everyone.
Another option is to practice self-massage. The great thing about massage is that it doesn’t have to involve your entire body. Sure, a full body massage feels glorious, and ensures that you hit every part of your body, but you can get the same parasympathetic benefit just from massaging your own arms, hands, or neck.
If you want to explore full body massage, you could swap massages with a friend, or with your significant other. If you’re really serious about it, you can get a massage chair or table from a massage table outlet or an online vendor like Earthlite.com. A table or chair will provide a stable work surface, and allow you to sit or lie in positions that you might not be able to achieve on a bed or a normal chair.
You can find tips for doing self-massage, and partner massage, online or through books and magazines.
If you are interested in going to a professional therapist, you should go to massage and bodywork organizations like The American Massage Therapy Association and the American Bodywork & Massage Professionals. These organizations make sure that every therapist listed with them has the proper training, licensing and/or certification.
You can also find therapists on community classifieds, like Craigslist, but you should always check with one of the massage and bodywork organizations to make sure they are registered.