But the relief model is certainly tempting. There are many painful-but-relieving analogies in medicine and biology.15 That’s similar to what good pain in massage feels like, but it’s not the same: no one thinks that lancing a boil or popping a shoulder joint back in is anything but painful while it’s happening.16 And we can’t necessarily take the good pain sensation at face value and assume it means there’s actually going to be a positive outcome. Brains are not all-knowing. Sometimes they see danger where there is none, and sometimes they see help where there is none.
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Several mechanisms for deep massage’s natural stress-relieving effects include its ability to dilate blood vessels and also lower activity of the limbic system (including the hypothalamus), which is responsible for autonomic nervous system regulation and cortisol secretion. Massage has been shown to improve relaxation by boosting activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, as measured by heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability. (8, 9)
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Chronic back pain. The American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM) reports that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, with is more than those afflicted with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and cancer combined. Additionally, back pain is the most common type of pain reported, accounting for 27 percent of all chronic pain cases. It is also the leading cause of disability in Americans who are 45-years-old or younger. Research has found that deep tissue massage can potentially help ease this pain, offering these individuals a chance at a higher quality of life.
During the 1990s, I observed at least seven foot reflexologists at work during health expositions. In most cases, the process appeared to be an ordinary prolonged foot massage with little communication between the practitioners and their clients. But at one exhibit, the practitioners claimed that they could reduce stress, cleanse the body of toxins, increase circulation, assist in weight loss, and improve the health of organs throughout the body. On another occasion, I underwent a 15-minute session in which the practitioner felt my foot for diagnostic purposes and then massaged it for "therapeutic" purposes. During the previous year, I had had severe shoulder pain caused by an inflamed tendon that was rubbing against a bony surface inside my left shoulder joint. Thorough medical evaluation had determined that the appropriate treatment was arthroscopic surgery in which a drill is used to shave the bony area that was impinging on the tendon. The reflexologist claimed that he could detect the shoulder problem by feeling my left foot, that it was caused by stress, and that pressing on my foot—perhaps for a few sessions—could solve the problem. His "treatment," which lasted about 10 minutes, consisted of massaging the foot and from time to time, pressing hard on the ball of my foot, a procedure that was quite painful. The "treatment," of course, did absolutely nothing to help my shoulder. A few months later, I had the surgery, which cured the problem immediately and permanently.
Swedish massage is focused primarily on the body and, therefore, is a more physical approach to relieving stress, aches, pains, and tension. One benefit of Swedish massage is its ability to relax the mind-brain connection—the mind being the energy and thoughts, and the brain being the physical matter. This is thought to contribute to a more balanced, stimulated, and integrated system. A healthy mind-brain connection may also help facilitate better physical health.