The Benefits of Massage
Massage is something we do on a day-to-day basis without even realising it. When we bang our elbow on a doorframe; when we knock into the edge of a table and hurt our leg; when we have a stomach ache; what is the first thing we do? We rub where it hurts. And when we hold a crying baby we instinctively rub their backs to soothe them; this rubbing is the most primitive and intuitive kind of massage there is.
The word ‘massage’ has its roots in ancient Arabic, from the word ‘mass’h,’ which means to touch or knead, but the earliest account of massage as a therapy comes from China, in around 1800BC. It was described in a medical text, Con-Fu of the Toa-Tse, which spoke of how massage was used to alleviate pain and relieve suffering.
Egyptian hieroglyphs have even depicted massage. These were found in the tomb of Ankmahor, a highly regarded physician who treated the Pharaoh. And more recently than that (although still many thousands of years ago, in 460-380BC), Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, wrote that: “The physician must be experienced in many things but assuredly also in rubbing… For rubbing can bind a joint that is too loose and loosen a joint that is too rigid…” He can only have been describing massage.
And, of course, the Romans enjoyed a massage too. Galen, a famous Roman physician (130-201AD), appears, as far as we can tell from documents and letters of the time, to have created his own kind of massage, specifically for battlefield and sporting injuries. We still use his techniques today, and we call it sports massage.
Before surgeons were able to successfully carry out operations; before medicines were created that would prevent or stop pain, massage was really all we, as a species, had.
Today there are over 70 different types of massage, ranging from those that are used to help with specific injuries, to those that are designed to help with the mind – soothing it by relaxing the body. No matter what the ailment, it seems there is a massage that will improve it. We’ve outlined some of the most popular, and detailed the benefits of each, so you can decide whether massage therapy is for you.
Swedish massage is the general, all-purpose massage that will most likely come to mind when you start to think about the practice. Swedish massage works to relax the entire body, rubbing the muscles using long strokes that glide across the skin in the direction of the blood circulating the body. The masseuse will also move their hands in a circular motion, as well as tapping the body, kneading it firmly, and stretching limbs where necessary.
The benefits of Swedish massage are numerous; during and after such a massage, flexibility is improved, the oxygen levels in the blood are increased, and toxins are decreased, as is the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Many claim that colds and the flu are easier to fight after a Swedish massage, probably because the body’s white blood cells are increased, and these are responsible for fighting disease.
Aromatherapy massage is similar to Swedish massage, except that essential oils are added to the massage oil, giving you an extra boost. The great thing about aromatherapy massage is that, as well as the benefits of Swedish massage (a healthier immune system, relaxation, increased oxygen levels and so on), there are the added benefits of the essential oils.
The scent (or aroma, hence the term ‘aromatherapy’) of the oil is pleasant, but it does more than just smell nice. Essential oils work, in this instance, by being inhaled. The nostrils are a direct route to the limbic system of the brain. This system is what controls our emotions and hormones, so it is an important part of everyday life. Inhaling the molecules from the essential oils during a massage sends them straight to the limbic system, and they directly affect the rest of the body because of that – even digestion and blood pressure are linked to the limbic system. And just to make sure we’re getting a good dose of these fabulous oils, they can also be absorbed through the skin, making massage the best way to get the most out of them.
Hot Stone Massage
Hot stone massage uses – as the name implies – hot (or warm) stones that have been covered in oil as part of the process. The masseuse will place these stones on various pressure points on your body, which will become extremely relaxed thanks to the constant pressure and heat of the stones. At the same time, your muscles will be rubbed using various different strokes, to make you even more relaxed and feeling light and happy. Some versions of hot stone massage will also incorporate cold stones, such as marble, and these will be alternated with the hot stones to keep your muscles relaxed.
Studies show that the combination of both hot and cold can go a long way to soothing pain, and this massage technique is often used as a natural painkiller. It is also a great way to detox as it speeds up the digestive system, making it more efficient, and helps to flush waste more quickly, giving you a healthy body. Hot stone massage is great for those with poor circulation, back pain, fibromyalgia and arthritis, as well as insomnia and depression.
Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage, and it translates as ‘finger pressure’. No oils are used, and the touch is light. Although kneading is part of the shiatsu technique, there is no rubbing and not much pressure is put on the body – this technique is more about touching specific points rather than relaxing the entire body at once. Unlike most other massage techniques, it is performed through the clothing.
Shiatsu has been shown to reduce muscle stiffness, and make the digestive system more efficient. It relieves fatigue and insomnia, makes symptoms of PMS and fibromyalgia less painful and more bearable, and works generally on back, neck, and joint pain. Depending on the main aim of the massage session, shiatsu can make you feel totally relaxed, or highly invigorated.
Reflexology is a kind of massage that focuses mainly on the feet, at least in the way it is implemented. The theory behind it is that each area of the foot corresponds to a different area of the body, and that by applying pressure to the foot, those other parts can be affected for the better. Examples of the theory of reflexology are that the tips of the toes relate to the head; the arch of the foot relates to the liver, pancreas, and kidneys; and the heel works on the lower back and intestines. It is the energy pathways that connect each system that the pressure on the foot enables, opens, and benefits.
Reflexology is all about prevention, not necessarily cure. Digestive issues, back problems, headaches — these can all be eased with reflexology. It is also fantastic for pain management, and for those with long-term debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s or MS.