Massage Helps Chronic Pain

Published in the Lotus Guide, Chico, CA. October 2010

Don, a triathlete, stopped competing and started physical therapy while attending medical school. It started with a running injury in which he tore a hamstring muscle. The pain gradually worsened, leaving him with right hip and lower back pain that stopped his participation in sports. He saw two orthopedists and went to physical therapy for two years; he even tried some cortisone injections, which helped slightly, but did not cure the condition. Don gained weight, lost energy, and grew despondent.

Don’s case is one of a multitude of cases that fall under the medical name Chronic Pain Syndrome, persistent pain from unknown causes. In this case, the injury healed, but pain remained. It is estimated between 15 and 20% of Americans suffer from chronic pain.

The September 2009 issue of the Scientific American Mind magazine published a special report focusing on Chronic Pain Syndrome. The magazine, citing the latest studies, reported, “No one knows for sure why some injuries, even minor ones, result in persistent pain or why it occurs in some people but not in others. Nevertheless, researchers are pinpointing telltale changes in the neurons that underlie persistent pain. In particular, they have documented abnormal excitability among neurons at every level of the body’s pain network.”

Pain is a sensation that defies explanation and keeps authorities arguing. However, all agree that pain stimulates a sense of alarm that requests a response. Most definitions note the suffering; some note the protective benefits of pain. However, recent studies report the way people define pain, changes the way they experience it. So choose your definition well.

The Oxford English Dictionary, a venerable reference book, defines the sense of pain as, “A primary condition of sensation or consciousness, the opposite of pleasure; the sensation which one feels when hurt (in body or mind); suffering, distress.”

Today scholars say, “…pain is a complex perceptual experience influenced by a wide range of psychosocial factors, including emotions, social and environmental context, sociocultural background, the meaning of pain to the person, and beliefs, attitudes, and expectations, as well as biological factors.”

Western medicine distinguishes between two types of pain:  acute and chronic pain. There are important distinctions, which affect diagnosis and treatment.

The word ‘acute’ means sharp or pointed. “Acu” is used in words such as acuity, acumen, acupuncture, and acupressure. Acute pain occurs during healing from physical injuries, vigorous exercise, and rehabilitation therapy. A period of acute pain comes to a natural end after the healing crisis.

‘Chronic’ is a medical term that applies to long-standing diseases. Chronic pain is lingering and incurable, the opposite of acute pain that heals and stops hurting.  Chronic Pain Syndrome disables and demoralizes people, because the constant pain holds victims hostage for months or years at a time, keeping them from what they love.

Western culture defines pain in terms of its discomfort and its role in suffering. Eastern culture defines pain in terms of its association with the life force (qi) and its role in healing. Traditional Chinese medicine states qi, the life force, is meant to move throughout the body. Pain results when the flow of qi is impeded.

Qi and blood are partners: qi moves blood and blood nourishes qi. They are like yin and yang, always found together but in different quantities. This is especially true in the muscles and connective tissue where qi and blood disorders can be felt. The feeling of stuck qi is tender tissue, and the feeling of congealed blood is stiff tissue.

While fear is a natural response to pain, and avoiding activities that provoke pain is reasonable for acute pain, it serves no purpose when treating chronic pain. Anxiety and fear intensify the pain experience, increasing the sensitivity to pain-related activities. Prolonged states of anxiety reduce tolerance for pain. Fear of re-injury is a better predictor of disability than the signs, symptoms, and severity of the pain.

Pain makes exercise more difficult, resulting in loss of flexibility, strength, and coordination, which further complicates recovery, and when the victim believes painful activity may aggravate the initial injury, it results in avoidance of therapeutic activity, which could reduce pain and promote healing.

A therapeutic massage can stimulate mild acute pain to desensitize the fearful patients. It can reduce the anxiety by releasing endorphins and relieve chronic pain with a little acute pain that improves circulation throughout the painful injured tissue.

A massage therapist can coach a suffering patient and talk about the problems caused by their painful condition. Mary Ewing, owner of Back To Basics, an integrative health center, is a massage therapist and chiropractor. I asked Dr. Mary how she coaches a patient. She said, “When people come into my office, I listen to what they tell me and the language and terminology they use to describe their problem. I talk to them about rewiring what they say about their pain.”

Besides being good listeners, some therapists have a healing touch¾their hands dissolve pain. Some massage therapists go deeper into more painful places, and patients find the relief outweighs any discomfort during therapy. It is as if acute pain defeats chronic pain.

Don, now a doctor, decided to see a massage therapist recommended by a friend. When he came to see me, he still suffered from back pain that kept him from running, bicycling, and swimming. He was initially skeptical.

I used massage to remove the blood stagnation¾improving circulation and reducing tension in stiff muscles. Then after locating the points needed for therapy, I pressed the acupoints used since ancient times to relieve pain. I also located and pressed acupoints that I discovered during my exam. After a course of treatments, the bad pain was gone and he resumed swimming. After working with me for six months, his problem was completely resolved. Three years later Don wrote about his recovery from chronic back pain with acupressure massage, “(It) completely controlled not only that problem, but chronic shoulder stiffness and pain.”

Though pain may be a mystery to many, it is no mystery why people seek massage therapy. Massage has many benefits, no risks, and is complementary to medical therapy. Massage clients report long-term benefits of more energy, greater strength, and flexibility.

The way you think about pain can hurt you. When in pain, imagine your body is talking or your life force is sending you a message, seeking a helping hand. Massage therapists erase pain by rubbing it out. Acupressure therapists relieve pain by applying pressure to acupoints. Remember, you do not have to suffer from pain.

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