Note: Massage therapists are not doctors who can diagnose illnesses. Technically, they can't even "treat" injuries. But they can address symptoms, and sometimes that's all that's needed for relief.
Chicago Tribune (KRT) - Twelve days after I cracked two ribs by coughing too hard, I went to see a massage therapist. I had serious doubts that massage could help this type of freak injury, but the practitioner was optimistic. And I trusted she would be gentle.
"You're my fourth rib case this week!" she said, wondering what larger force of the universe was at play. "Come in. Let's see what's going on." She needed just 45 minutes to work her magic. When I rolled off the table, I could finally take a deep belly breath, cough and sneeze without feeling a piercing pain in my abdomen. The tight, pinched muscles in my shoulder and neck, which had been compensating for the fractured ribs, also mercifully let go.
Massage is flourishing in the United States for a good reason: A gifted pair of hands can improve your quality of life. It's especially handy when internists say: "There's not much you can do." Massage therapists are not doctors who can diagnose illnesses. Technically, they can't even "treat" injuries. But they can address symptoms, and sometimes that's all that's needed for relief.
Massage schools teach that certain pathologies can benefit from hands-on work, including overuse injuries such as bursitis, inflammatory conditions, gastrointestinal issues and even arthritis, cancer and chronic fatigue. Musculoskeletal injuries such as bruised or fractured ribs can be targeted by a careful, mindful therapist once the acute stage has passed.
In the first several weeks, massage strokes would be excruciatingly painful and might interfere with the healing process. But in the meantime, a therapist could address other parts of the body that have been pulled out of whack by compensating for the injury.
My massage therapist, Karen Blonski, who is popular with both elite marathoners and Chicago-area athletes, treated my ribs using her own system, devised and perfected over three decades. But massage educators say a standard method is to home in on the intercostal muscles, which are between each rib. "If a bone has a crack in it, the muscles on each side will tighten and they'll pull the edges of the bone away from the center, making the crack bigger," said Michael Hovi, director of education for Chicago's Soma Institute, The National School of Clinical Massage Therapy.
Massage therapists generally loosen the fascia (a band of connective tissue that separates the muscles) to get those intercostal muscles to let go, Hovi said. "When they relax, the center of the bone is drawn back together and you can breathe easier," he explained.
Hovi, who teaches a massage class to first-year medical students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained how massage can help treat symptoms of other common but frustrating ailments.
• Carpal tunnel syndrome: Imagine your fingers are numb. If it's from tight muscles compressing the nerve, the massage therapist can work on relaxing muscles that are squeezing the nerve.
• Tendinitis: Someone with a common tendinitis of the shoulder might not be able to hold on to a gallon of milk. A massage therapist will put a client through range-of-motion exercises and figure out which tendon is involved. To restart the healing process, the therapist will create an inflammatory response right on the tendon, Hovi said. Once the muscles are loose, a therapist will work on breaking apart adhesions.
• Herniated disc: Visualize two bones - one on top of the disc and one below. If the muscles are in a spasm, they will pull those two bones closer together. When that happens, the disc will bulge farther, hit the nerve and cause pain. A therapist will get the muscles to stop spasming, taking the pressure off the nerve.
Finding a good therapist who can apply the right technique for a particular injury isn't easy. First, know the difference between Swedish massage - the most popular form of massage - and clinical massage.
• Swedish massage, also called wellness or spa massage, will focus on relaxation.
• A clinical massage therapist, who might use techniques like neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release or lymphatic drainage, can address specific ailments.
• Medical Massage is another term that can indicate that a massage therapist has extended training in anatomy. I found Karen, an orthopedic massage therapist, by word of mouth, one of the most effective ways to track down a good body worker.
Once you get a name, make sure there's a comfortable connection. "You have to click with the therapist and have confidence with what they're doing," said Patricia Coe, the massage therapy clinic supervisor at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois.
© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Reproduced here with permission. Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.