I'm always doing research because the human body is still quite the mystery despite the plethora of knowledge that we have acquired. The other day, I came across this video that explains a common question we have: why will my body go back to being tight after massage releases its tight muscles?
Sam Visnic is a good massage therapist to follow because he knows the truth: good massage therapists aren't treating the muscles as much as they're treating the nervous system that controls muscle tension. It's the nervous system that's coordinating which muscles have to tighten in order to counterbalance a dysfunction elsewhere in the body.
This is why I don't like to do massages that concentrate on just one area of the body. A problem with your shoulder, for instance, will require your neck, arms, chest, ribs, back, and even hips to take on more work than they were designed to do. So a whole bunch of muscles will get overworked and send out a distress signal in the form of pain. Releasing a painful muscle may feel good for a few hours or even days, but not treating the other dysfunctions in the body means that the shoulder will be encouraged by other parts of the body to return to its distortion in order to keep the tentative balance that keeps us moving through the world at all. This is why I can work on your neck and you'll suddenly feel your sacrum loosen up. It's all connected, and you need to be treated as a systemic whole, not an assemblage of parts.
Because it's the nervous system that's coordinating various muscles' functions in order to keep us up and moving about (or not!), this is also why relaxation is important, too. Your body needs to feel safe in order for your nervous system to relax enough for the muscles to release. We have enough medical personnel quickly poking and prodding us, expecting our bodies to produce health. The truth is, with the exception of sudden injuries, our dis-ease in the world happened incrementally over time, and healing usually does, too. Massage is a way we stop to take stock of our bodies in order to better position ourselves for the restoration it grants under normal circumstances.
But let's be honest: it takes a long time to regain our body's balance and heal. For some of us, it'll take the rest of our lives. The younger we are when we start addressing these imbalances, the more likely we are to live out our days without as much pain. And this is my wish for us all.
Implicit in the last blog post is an understanding that physical pain comes attached with certain emotions and thoughts that are unique to the individual, depending upon their past experiences and situations that are still affecting the present. Often, we are oblivious to these subconscious processes that keep us bound in the past with its pain.
The good news is that, with intentional work, we can uncover the thoughts and narratives we have surrounding our pain.
In the last blog post, we talked about the physical input of pain gathered from our tissues and how pain is not processed in the damaged or diseased tissue itself, but in the fascia where the receptors of the nervous system reside.
Input of pain from receptors of damaged tissue is also mixed with other input in our nervous system from our thoughts, emotions, and memories of past experiences. In fact, these are the filters through which we process the physical pain, which accounts for how widely we experience what should be the same amount of pain for the same physical injury
New studies on the nature of chronic pain are teaching us that pain is the product of a complex of physiological, emotional, attitudinal, and social factors. It is important to keep in mind that pain is not just one or the other of these factors, but a complex of all.
In spite of the danger of continuing the traditional separation of these factors, in the interest of your time, this blog post is going to focus on the physiological nature of pain. We’ll cover the other factors in future blog posts.
Pain is not processed in the location where you feel it, but in our nervous system. How many times have you been on the massage table to say, “It hurts here,” only to have the massage therapist find that that’s not really where the problem is? My left front hip pain is often from a problem with my right back hip, but I’d swear to you that the problem is my front left hip because that’s where it hurts—and I know better!
Massage is about lengthening tight fascia and muscles. But how we stand and move also determines how our muscles lengthen or shorten into set patterns over time. This is why massage is only one part of healing and wholeness.
Believe it or not, how we walk is an important piece of the healing puzzle. It’s why I spend time really opening your feet and calves so that you can walk correctly, which is something most of us have never learned. We just stood up and started walking, and everyone cheered. But if you really want the full benefit of a massage, you’ll also want to practice good posture and walking patterns so that your body can release its old painful patterns and create new healthy ones.
No one has a normal body. Normal is a construct based on what's most frequently found among a myriad of variations. Yet too often, medical professionals expect us to conform to what they learn is normal. I don’t want to bad-mouth doctors; they heal us. But their education is based on a heuristic norm, a standard that can be taught. Massage therapists are also licensed by the Ohio Medical Board who learn anatomy like medical doctors. We have the anatomical charts that indicate where all the muscles are. Except--when you get your hands on people, you find that no one is exactly like the person in the anatomy charts.
Teresa Eisenlohr is a licensed massage therapist who's also an ordained Presbyterian pastor with a Ph.D. in Christian theology. Needless to say, it's been a weird and interesting healing journey.