Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is the healing process by which the soft tissue of the body is manipulated by the hands of a trained therapist. Soft-tissue therapy includes the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and the capsules that encase the various joints of the body.

Massage is a therapeutic technique that has been employed for many centuries in a number of cultures. Modern massage therapy has significant aspects in common with traditional Chinese medicines, including acupuncture and the use of various herbal remedies and the application of poultices, with the most important being that it is a proven aid to the enhancement of a number of physical functions.

Massage therapy is directed to a number of separate but related physical purposes. Injured muscles can be effectively manipulated to deliver pain relief in the affected areas; tight or contracted muscles can be relaxed through the application of various levels of manual pressure, especially when the muscles have been subjected to the stresses of athletic competition and training. The various massage techniques are effective in stimulating blood flow in the body. Massage is also useful in improving the function of the lymphatic system and the central nervous system.

Massage therapy is also employed for the purpose of relaxation. Stress is created in a number of circumstances for an athlete, both as a direct result of the production of the hormone adrenaline when the body perceives itself confronted by exciting circumstances, and indirectly through the accumulated effect of stressful circumstances. Diverse and critical functions such as heart rate, immune system, and the digestive tract are all adversely impacted by stress.

There are well over 50 different defined techniques used in the various applications of massage therapy. Many of these techniques are used in combination. Four common forms of massage therapy used to assist in the resolution of athletic injuries include:

  • Acupressure: This therapy is closely related to acupuncture procedures, which involve the utilization of the chi, the inherent healing energy believed to be present throughout the body, by manipulation of the tissues at defined pressure points. These pressure points are connected to the function of the internal organs and the circulation of blood throughout the body; their stimulation is designed to aid in the direction of healing power to an affected area. A technique similar to acupressure is that of shiatsu, a Japanese-derived system that involves the application of finger pressure to pre determined zones of the body.
  • Rolfing: This is a vigorous form of massage that involves a manipulation of the skin to effect a loosening of the underlying muscle structure. Rolfing is employed both as a preventative as well as a therapeutic treatment.
  • Swedish massage: This is a technique in which the basic direction of the hands in the course of the application is toward the heart of the person. The central object of a Swedish massage is improved circulation; it has also been employed as a technique to reduce scar tissue in muscle groups.
  • Sports massage: These techniques are often an amalgam of massage therapies designed to reduce injury and inflammation, to relax the athlete, and as use as both a warm up or a cool down ritual. A vigorous massage applied for up to 20 minutes, generally one hour in advance of competition, often prepares the athlete. Post-event, a massage will stimulate circulation, especially in the region of the working muscles, flushing out metabolic waste materials such as those related to lactic acid production.

Athletes seeking the benefit of massage therapy, no matter what type, will often receive the benefit of fascial techniques. These are manipulations that are intended to focus on the fascia, the general term for the connective tissues located at the joints throughout the body. In this context, the fascia may include cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the vicinity of the joint. A well-known fascia problem experienced by athletes is plantar fasciitis, where the connective band between the heel and the forefoot under the arch of the foot becomes inflamed. The illiol band between the hip and the knee joint is another connective tissue that may become stressed in athletic activity.

It is a testament to the legitimacy of massage as a therapeutic technique that many elite-level athletic organizations and individual athletes regularly undergo massage therapy. Many teams have a full-time athletic therapist on their staff, whose focus is as much injury prevention as it is therapy. In many jurisdictions, massage therapists are a part of a larger regulated industry, where formalized training and licensing are mandatory.

SEE ALSO Acupuncture and Eastern healing therapies; Exercise recovery; Musculoskeletal injuries; Sports medicine education.