How does massage help PTSD, stress and anxiety?
Part 2, by Kimberley Pledger
Following up on our blog from last week, Kimberley now explains 5 more physical symptoms linked to PTSD, taking into consideration how regular massage can help to address them.
5. Muscle tension
Chronic muscle tension is caused when muscles contract and do not return to their natural state. Over time, the muscle fibres stick together reducing the blood flow to this area and causing pain. This is usually caused by repetitive patterns of movement and for a person with PTSD this could either be as a result of the muscles repeatedly tensing in readiness for fight or flight or as the body re-enacts movements it performed during the traumatic experience.
Although severe or chronic muscle tension can occur anywhere in the body, it usually occurs in the neck, shoulders, back and legs. Muscles should have elasticity, but those in the grip of severe tension feel hard to the touch and are stiff and inflexible; often the tension is accompanied by a reduced range of movement, and a hot burning sensation, but over time massage can help to reverse these effects.
Massage manipulates soft tissue by kneading, stretching, tapping, stroking and vibrating. When these techniques are applied directly to areas of muscle tension the muscle fibres soften, the blood flow to that area increases and range of movement is improved. Initially, there may be some discomfort as the muscles are being moved in ways that are not familiar, that do not necessarily feel natural because they have become so used to a different pattern of movement, but this passes and the muscles become supple and move more easily.
Regular massage can help the body to forget the patterns of movement associated with the traumatic experience and over time PTSD sufferers can experience renewed flexibility, greater ease of movement and a reduction in pain levels.
While some parts of the body are working at full tilt when affected by PTSD, others can almost shut down completely. The digestive system slows significantly when a person is in mortal danger because digestion isn’t a core function of survival and all the body’s energies are diverted elsewhere. With PTSD, the body and brain get stuck in fight or flight mode, which is why digestive transit can be very slow for those affected.
Massage of the abdomen not only feels deeply soothing it is also very effective at increasing the speed of digestion. This is partly because some of the strokes used mimic peristalsis (the wave-like pulsing action of the intestine which breaks down food and allows nutrients to pass into the blood stream) and partly because stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system activates the digestive system.
During a massage, a person will start to salivate, will swallow more frequently and may hear their stomach gurgle, all of which is in sharp contrast to the dry mouth and knotted stomach of a person in the grip of terror.
Some people may experience areas of numbness in their body as a result of their traumatic experience, but in some cases massage can help to re-introduce feeling to those areas affected. For instance, people with PTSD sometimes find their hands and feet get cold as their overall circulation becomes less effective because the body is on alert and the blood supply is diverted to areas most needed.
Massage stimulates the circulation bringing blood and feeling back into the parts of the body affected.
Massage is an instinctive response to pain – as a child if you fall over we talk of “rubbing it better.” How does something as simple and natural as touch help to alleviate pain? Pleasure and pain are transmitted to the brain via neural pathways. Pleasure travels more quickly than pain and this can have the effect of shutting off the pathways that carry pain. This is known as the Gate Theory of Pain.
Positive touch is experienced as pleasure by the brain so it follows that massage can be used as a way of relieving some types of pain.
Headaches are prevalent amongst PTSD sufferers and massage may help to prevent them by easing muscle tension in the shoulders and neck and may help to shorten their duration because of the effects of Gate theory of pain.
Self-massage can be just as effective in this regard as seeing a professional. Try gently and slowly circling your temples with your fingers or the heels of your hands and resting your eye sockets on the heels of your hand can bring relief to tired eyes.
10. Compromised immunity
Any one of the physical symptoms we’ve looked at so far might become difficult to cope with if experienced regularly so the debilitating effects of coping with several symptoms at once, sustained over extended periods of time, is pretty obvious. When added to the psychological effects of PTSD – nightmares, flashbacks, and dissociation to name but three – you can see that over time the body’s functioning almost inevitably becomes strained and compromised. With so much going on in the mind and body of a person with PTSD, there is the potential of getting sucked into a vicious cycle of deteriorating health so using massage as part of your armoury of defences is a smart move.
Massage is experienced as pleasure and pleasure makes the body produce endorphins which is why people feel good after a massage. Much more research needs to be done in this area, but what seems to be the case is that feeling good helps to boost immunity.
In conclusion, massage can be very helpful in managing the physical symptoms of PTSD and in so doing it can help a person to rebuild trust in their own body which, over time, can help to re-establish a sense of ease with themselves and those around them.