For as long as I can remember, I’ve had back problems. In college during a bout of particular stress, I became so sore that I was hunched and nearly crippled with the pain of trying to walk. That’s what I get for trying to pass calculus! During the course of trying to figure out what was wrong with me, a doctor discovered that I was born with four extra cervical ribs. During times of stress, my back muscles lock around these ribs and pull my neck and spine out of place. The solution, he told me, was that either I could have my extra ribs removed or I could rest, get my stress under control (easier said than done), and learn some techniques which would keep me put together. He recommended stretching techniques in line with physical therapy and light yoga. For the time being at least, this kept the monsters away.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and I found myself in that place of rude awakening with regard to my health where many of us find ourselves once we hit our mid-thirties. Desk job with long hours, overweight, not enough exercise, bad posture; you know the drill. I felt heavy, sluggish, tired, and toxic. When I attended a doctor’s appointment to discuss trying to get pregnant, he discovered that my blood pressure was also high. About the only things I was doing properly were drinking plenty of water, eating fairly reasonably, and getting enough sleep, but my muscles were starting to show the wear and tear of age combined with my poor habits.
When possible, I like to approach health issues by simply adjusting my lifestyle, rather than taking supplements or drugs. In addition to making a run at amending my habits, I started attending regular deep tissue massage therapy sessions at the suggestion of a friend – you know, the kind where they beat you to death and send you on your way. I’m kidding (kind of.) I will admit, my first visit was largely triggered by my having pulled my shoulder out of joint while painting my house.
I selected a spa specializing in nothing but massage, with a focus in deep tissue and Swedish therapy. My treatment began with a fifty-five minute session intended to loosen your muscles and get them used to being manipulated, followed by an eighty minute session two weeks later, then a once a month eighty minute session thereafter. I was welcome to see the same therapist each time if I wished, but this spa also encouraged you to book with other therapists, to eventually find your perfect fit. I opted to see a different one each time. Each therapist made a point of communicating with me about what they were doing and encouraging me to let them know how I was feeling throughout, and each sat with me for a few minutes afterward to discuss my problem areas.
My first two sessions were wonderful and I left feeling looser, relaxed, and refreshed. My third session, which was to be the one where they started coaxing my poor body back into place, was a killer. They spent the majority of the session realigning my entire back. It was deceptive! It didn’t hurt during the treatment, but I discovered as I stood up that I was unable to bend over to put my pants on or pick up my purse. My entire mid-torso felt like it couldn’t hold me up – like the muscles had simply disintegrated. I finally managed to wrestle myself into my pants, asked the therapist to hand me my bag, then slowly shuffled home.
I was weak and hobbly all of that evening and the next day, and then the most amazing thing happened: the ancient knot in my right shoulder (also known as a “mouse knot”, from my long hours hunched over the computer) was gone. The old knot in my lower right back was gone. My left side stopped overcompensating and my hip righted itself. My posture was suddenly outstanding. I had been sitting and moving wrong for so long that my muscles had frozen in grotesque positions, and were finally free.
Now, I am four months and five sessions in, and here’s what else I have noticed, in addition to the benefits of taking care of myself a little better (I’m a work in progress):
• Prolonged improved posture
• I can sleep now! Comfortably! And without waking up every twenty minutes! (Regular deep tissue massage triggers the release of oxytocin and serotonin, and reduces stress hormone levels.)
• Improved circulation – no more freezing fingers and toes! We’ll see how that goes when winter hits.
• Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety
• No more soreness in my back muscles (regular deep tissue massage focuses on your deepest layers of muscle tissue, tendons, and fascia, helping to release chronic muscle tension)
• Significantly fewer headaches
• My blood pressure is lower by over twenty points, and my heart rate has slowed down and stayed that way (a Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study found that people’s blood pressure drops after just a single forty-five to sixty minute session)
• My chronically sore ankles (due to injury) are collapsing significantly less than before (regular deep tissue massage can help with muscle damage due to injury as well)
• My genetically poor skeletal structure (those blasted extra ribs) haven’t bothered me in months
• My arms and shoulders have a much better range of motion than previously
• Best of all, before I started massage therapy – and this is probably too much information – my monthly cycles had fluctuated wildly between 36 and 42 days, due to long-term use of Depo-Provera, a form of hormonal birth control. Despite having stopped it seven years ago after having been on it for ten, my cycles had never returned to normal, which is around 28 days. But since beginning regular massage therapy, my cycles have been consistently shortening by a few days each month (I’m now down to 29 days!) And whereas I used to get terrible cramps, I have been cramp-free since starting my treatment. Being able to chart a more regular cycle is going to help me become pregnant, so this has been an unexpected and amazing benefit.
According to Consumer Reports, 34,000 people ranked deep tissue massage more effective in relieving osteoarthritis pain than physical therapy, exercise, prescription medications, chiropractic, acupuncture, diet, glucosamine, and over-the-counter drugs. Deep tissue massage also received a top ranking for fibromyalgia pain, and also helps to relieve digestive disorders, chronic pain, sciatica, and arthritis.
While I am fortunate not to suffer from these other conditions, overall, I have been extremely pleased with how my therapy has progressed! Speak with your doctor about risks, and remember that massage therapy should not be painful, beyond a “hurts so good” feeling. Speak up if the pain is beyond your comfort range in order to avoid injury, remember to breathe, drink plenty of water afterward (massages often trigger a ‘detox’ response in your body), and don’t be surprised if you feel a little stiff for a day or two. I’m so glad I gave this a try, and I’ll be excited to note the continuing benefits to my health and well-being.
Photo credit: “Massage” by Nick Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.