Chances are, you're already aware of some of the better-known benefits of massage therapy. Stress relief? Check. Soothing sore muscles or an aching back? Of course. Helping you feel more relaxed? Sure.
But did you know that massage therapy can also relieve respiratory issues, aid in post-surgery rehabilitation and ease the discomforts of pregnancy? If this is news to you, you're not alone. Plenty of people don't realize that massage therapy can help treat a much wider range of conditions than you might expect.
Respiratory issues, such as allergies, sinus problems, asthma and bronchitis, are one group of conditions that can benefit from massage therapy. In fact, the positive impact massage can have on respiratory function has been proven through research, says Anne Williams, education program director at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.
Many muscles in the front and back of the upper body are accessory respiratory muscles, she explains. "When any of these muscles are chronically tight and shortened, they can restrict normal breathing and disrupt breathing patterns," she explains. "Massage techniques to lengthen and relax these muscles improve breathing capacity and function."
Massage therapy also improves posture, which can lead to an opening of the chest area, as well as the structural alignment and rib cage expansion needed for optimal lung function, she adds. Plus, when the parasympathetic nervous system responds to massage (see "Don't Let Stress Make You Sick"), your breathing rate slows and becomes deep and regular.
A particularly beneficial way of relieving respiratory issues through massage therapy is tapotement, a rhythmic, percussive stroke used in Swedish massage. When performed on the back, along with vibration and shaking, tapotement can loosen mucus in the lungs and increase airway clearance for better lung function, Williams says.
A Speedier Recovery
Massage therapy also can be helpful in postsurgical rehabilitation. Of course, every type of surgery is different, and it's best to check with your doctor and discuss your individual situation with your massage therapist.
However, Williams says, various studies have demonstrated how massage therapy can assist with postsurgical healing. "If the surgery is soft-tissue related, such as a rotator cuff repair, then the effects of massage on the muscular system are useful," she explains. "For each stage in the healing process of soft tissue, different massage techniques have been used successfully based on the needs of the individual."
For example, one study demonstrated that a variety of soft-tissue mobilization techniques successfully reduced scar tissue, decreased pain and improved range of motion in a patient with a severe ankle injury, Williams says.
Pregnancy can sometimes be uncomfortable and stressful for women. Fortunately, massage therapy has many proven benefits for expectant moms.
"Prenatal massage reduces pain from muscles compensating for a woman's changing body, improves mood and attitude, and can decrease anxiety about labor and delivery," Williams explains.
In one study that compared pregnant women who had regular massages with those who didn't, the women who had massages reported better sleep and less back pain. Plus, they had fewer complications during labor and delivery.
Williams emphasizes that every person is different, so whether you're seeking relief from pregnancy-related discomfort or a bout of sinusitis, the results of massage therapy may differ from person to person. However, massage therapy is definitely worth considering.
"Research has demonstrated how massage can be used successfully for a variety of different conditions," she says. "There are so many common ailments that can benefit from massage therapy, so be sure to discuss your specific needs with your massage therapist."
-By Amy Lynn Smith
-Photos by Jeff Newton