Physical Therapists Pinpoint Benefits of Massage

Physical therapists at the Medical College of Georgia aren’t content to simply know that a massage feels great. They want to know why.

Dr. Mary Ellen Franklin and Donavon Reimche, faculty members in the Department of Physical Therapy, have conducted studies pinpointing the health benefits of massage. “I have always been curious to know why you feel so good after a massage,” Dr. Franklin said. “I think something occurs systemically.”

Her research is targeted at validating that hunch. For instance, in one study, she measured levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in urine after people got a massage. She found that the cortisol levels tended to be altered after a massage, with the degree of variation correlating to the intensity of the muscle stimulation.

Dr. Franklin wants to further study hormone levels after a massage; for instance, she suspects that the muscle-loosening process may trigger the release of endorphins, enhancing a sense of well-being.

A study supervised by Mr. Reimche showed that a hamstring massage increases range of motion of the knee for a full week. “This technique could be used on people who have restrictions in motion due to tight muscles,” he said.

On the other hand, physical therapists caution that a massage isn’t for everyone. “Massage can shunt fluids centrally and stress the heart, so those with pre-existing medical conditions should consult a physical before getting a massage, just as they would if they were starting an exercise program,” Dr. Franklin said.

She also recommends that those with health problems get a massage from someone with extensive training in patient care such as a physical therapist. Physical therapists have a much more extensive medical background than massage therapists, she noted, and can target particular areas of the body for therapy after an illness or injury.

Physicians can refer patients to physical therapists for massage therapy as needed.

The field of physical therapy actually traces its roots to massage, according to Mr. Reimche. “Massage has been part of physical therapy since the inception of the field in the 1920s,” he said. “Massage therapy was a big part of polio therapy. We’ve done this for years.”

There is also an importnant physiological basis behind massage. For instance, “nerves can cause muscles to tighten,” said Mr. Reimche. “Or connective tissue may adapt to a contracted position and not allow full range of motion.” The correct diagnosis is vital to effective therapy.

Once physical therapists address the problem during massage, they teach patients adaptations in posture and movement to preclude future problems. “Our goal is to get people to the point where they can function independently,” Mr. Reimche said. “If you don’t change the habits and positions that caused the problem, we’re right back to where we started.”

Many of those habits and positions, he said, result from sedentary lifestyles and deskwork–the staple of many modern-day jobs. Physical therapists recommend regular exercise and frequent breaks from desk-bound tasks. A few stretches and a simple walk up and down the hall every half hour can make a big difference, Mr. Reimche noted. “The body handles movement fine,” he said. “That’s what the body is designed to do. Static posture is often the problem.”

Indeed, the health care community has come to dramatically rethink the conventional wisdom of bed rest to address problems such as back pain. “One of the highest correlations to back pain is extended bed rest,” Mr. Reimche said.

The consensus is clear, he said, that regular movement offers great benefits to the vast majority of people–and that the power of touch is a powerful tool in energizing achy muscles.

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