Touch: An Instinctive Healing Modality

The modern day massage therapist grew from the ancient and instinctive modality of touch. Touch is a fundamental response to treat our own pain. When we experience a headache, we often rub our temples and eyes. If we stub a toe, we immediately yell (perhaps some flowery expletives) as we grasp the throbbing appendage. This touch provides warmth and comfort, and it is our instinct to use touch as a method of healing.

Research provides a depth of knowledge that not only validates what we know instinctively, but is expanding what we know about the neurological, hormonal, and physiological effects of bodywork. Today’s Massage Therapist has the opportunity to combine instinct and science to impact a client’s healing experience on multiple levels.

It is common knowledge that massage feels good; it is relaxing, and it provides a break from the demands and routine of our daily lives. Many people use it as a way to decompress and escape. In a sense, they reward themselves with touch.

I challenge the idea of massage being simply a reward for good behavior, or a mechanism to use as an escape. Touch is more expansive than that. Touch is a fundamental need and, with a therapeutic approach, it provides the healing our physical body requires.

Research completed at the TOUCH Research Institute at the University of Miami has linked soft tissue work to having positive effects on our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous. The Sympathetic Nervous System controls our flight or fight impulse, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System controls our rest, digest, and restore capabilities. Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) activates mechanisms in the body that allow us to become very alert to danger, while norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) activates functions in the brain. These various activations are called “the fight or flight response”. When released at the appropriate time, these neurohormones can be life saving. However, prolonged release can lead to permanent changes such as high blood pressure, hyperactivity, and changes in restorative sleep patterns. Restorative sleep is necessary for the healing and tissue rebuilding that takes place in the body, and if levels become too low, the end result can be fatigue, drowsiness and sluggish responses to the world around us.

Research appears to show that massage can regulate the various neurohormones either by stimulating or inhibiting the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The balance between the two is critical as it helps us maintain homeostasis in the body.

A segment in Mosby’s “Fundamentals of Therapeutic Message, Third Edition”, focuses on Hippocrates, who was the first in Greek medicine to describe the medical benefits of anointing and massage. Between 460 – 377 B.C., Hippocrates demonstrated these benefits through observation and tissue palpation. These benefits were also evident hundreds of years later when Ambrose Pare used massage techniques for join stiffness and healing post-surgery wounds during the 16th century.

Massage as medicine has a long documented history, and that history is very much tied to the medical establishments of any given time. While it may appear that massage therapy is always playing catch up and living on the outskirts of society, there is a fundamental truth that stands the test of time; touch, as medicine, heals pain.

The next time you treat yourself to a massage I ask that you stay mentally present during the experience. Take notice of the rhythm of your heart beat, observe a decrease in anxiety stored in your chest, and realize and be aware of the deep meditative state of being you find yourself in during the experience. These responses are real physiological changes occurring in your body.

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