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Therapeutic Massage: A Pill-Free Option in Pain Management

Our series on complementary health approaches for pain management continues this month with a look at therapeutic massage.

Stiff necks that linger and sprained ankles that take weeks to heal have more in common than you might think. One reaction to managing the pain these ailments cause is to ask a doctor to prescribe an opioid pain reliever.

Opioids, however, are not always appropriate. These narcotic medications were originally developed to help people with serious health conditions manage chronic and/or acute pain. Cancer is an example.

We now know that oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opioids are generally not intended for long-term use. In addition to being highly addictive, they have many side effects. Abuse and overdose is widespread. In 2014, more than 14,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses. As many as 1 in 4 people who are prescribed opioids long-term end up struggling with addiction.

This is why, in many instances, a complementary non-drug approach may be safer and more effective. These approaches may make it possible to reduce or sometimes even replace an opioid medication. Last month, we covered acupuncture in our article, “Acupuncture: A Pill-Free Way to Manage Pain.” This month we take a look at therapeutic massage.

What is therapeutic massage?

In therapeutic massage, certified professionals apply varying amounts of pressure and movement on the muscles and other soft tissues. This manipulation encourages relaxation, which is helpful when awkward, strenuous or repetitive work positions lead to routinely tensed muscles that are often a source of chronic pain. Massage can also promote blood flow, which is essential for healing the muscle tears caused by sprains and strains. The skilled hands of a massage therapist can also encourage feelings of well-being, as human touch can help reduce the surge in hormones that cause stress.

Conditions that massage therapy has been found to help include:

  • Chronic low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Soft tissue strains
  • Certain headaches
  • Digestive disorders
  • Anxiety

There are many different types of massage therapy. The most common are:

  • Swedish massage: This is a gentle form of massage that uses long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration and tapping to help relax and energize you.
  • Deep tissue massage: Uses slower, more forceful strokes to target the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It’s commonly used to help with muscle damage from injuries.
  • Sports massage: Similar to Swedish massage but geared toward helping people involved in sports prevent or treat injuries.
  • Trigger point massage: Focuses on areas of tight muscle fibers that can form in your muscles after injury or overuse.

Therapeutic massage is not a replacement for regular medical care. While helpful for some people, it may not be appropriate for those with certain health conditions. These include:

  • Bleeding disorders or for those taking blood-thinning medication
  • Burns or healing wounds
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Fractures
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Severe thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count)

Talk to your health care provider about whether therapeutic massage is something you should consider. If you decide to give it a try, be sure to discuss your physical condition and areas of pain with the massage therapist so your session(s) can be tailored to your needs.

The LHSFNA’s new publication, Exploring Options to Manage Pain: Therapies and Mind-Body Practices, provides additional information about therapeutic massage and other drug-free options for treating pain. To order this publication or others click on Publications.

Future articles in Lifelines will explore other complementary health approaches in more detail.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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