Recently an older, somewhat frail woman came into my office. She has a serious condition that requires ongoing treatment and the primary condition creates numerous other serious health problems. In spite of this, she maintains a cheerful disposition and endures it all with acceptance.
A dear friend of hers thought that she might like a soothing massage and sent her to me, trusting that my experience and training would allow for both a pleasant and safe experience. The client consulted with her doctor about what would be permissible and what should be avoided and had his consent to have gentle massage.
Besides her complicated and generally frail condition, the client had osteoporosis and had suffered several broken bones as a result. Clearly, this was someone who needed to be handled very gently.
And she had neck pain.
Often what we massage therapists will do to sore muscles is to apply pressure to them. It might be a lot of pressure or it might be more moderate, but generally the approach is to push directly into the area of perceived muscle soreness. So, what do we do when presented with a client who may not be able to tolerate having our thumbs pressed into their body? Does this mean we have to turn them away and leave them in pain?
If we don’t press directly into an area of tenderness, what tools do we have to alleviate muscle pain? Can we turn off pain without pressing into irritated tissue?
Pain is not “felt” by muscle fibers, pain is “felt” by the nervous system. It is the nervous system that makes muscle fibers contract; it is the brain that controls our experience of pain. Knowing this, I took my client’s head and neck into my hands and began with some very, very gentle contact. I knew that pushing into her neck was not an option and that the only way to alleviate her pain with manual therapy would be to convince her brain that it could relax the muscles and turn down the volume on the sensation of pain. So, that’s what I set out to do.
It’s hard to describe exactly what I did with my hands. The best I can say is that I engaged in gentle handling of her head, neck, and upper shoulders. She found it pleasant and became quiet and visibly relaxed.
Eventually, when it seemed like that part of her body had had enough attention, I moved on and gave very gentle massage to the rest of her body. I didn’t worry that the light contact to her skin was too “superficial” to have any effect. The client said that it felt very, very good and it was easy to see that her body looked relaxed. Her nervous system obviously liked the input it was receiving.
When the client got up, she had no pain in her neck and said she felt an ease of movement that she’d not experienced in some time. Her entire body was relaxed and she was smiling.
No poking, no prodding, no pressure, no manipulation of joints, just gentle input into her nervous system via the skin was enough to bring about an interruption to her pain.
Perhaps we do not have to push hard into sore muscles to alleviate pain. Perhaps, through gentle touch, we can soothe the nervous system into turning off the pain experience. What do you think?