By Guest Blogger Adam Brown, LMT, NHE, MCT
When most people think of sports massage, they typically imagine a lot of stretching and
deep tissue work. They might even imagine pain. Good therapists vary their pressure
greatly according to their client’s comfort level and desired depth of bodywork, but it is not
uncommon for greater amounts of pressure in localized areas to cause a pain response in
the massage recipient. This is typically characterized by muscle “guarding” or tensing and
either a sharp inhale of breath or holding the breath all together. Both of these responses
tend to be counterproductive as far as the overall goal of most massage sessions is
concerned, which is to provide therapeutic relaxation to muscles and soft tissue in order to
reduce pain and tension and decrease injuries.
Another often overlooked positive outcome of effective massage work is a relaxation of the
autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two branches, or two sides
of the coin, if you will: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. You may
have heard these two branches referred to colloquially as the “fight or flight” and the “rest
and digest” systems respectively. If you struggle with keeping the two straight, just think ‘S’
for stress and sympathetic and ‘P’ for peace and parasympathetic.
The primary functions of the parasympathetic nervous system are well illustrated by the
phrase “rest and digest” (and we could also add reproduce). These functions allow the body
to build, repair, heal, and carry on life, so to speak. Conversely, the sympathetic nervous
system kicks into gear in dangerous and/or stressful situations, elevating the heart rate,
increasing muscle tone, and essentially getting one ready for action. From the viewpoint of
evolutionary biology, we can understand how it would be beneficial to quickly go from a
state of rest to a state of flight if we think of our ancestors’ needs to evade predators at a
moment’s notice in order to survive.
Our bodies function best when they can actively switch between the parasympathetic and
sympathetic nervous systems as our environment dictates. However, our achievement
driven Western society has conditioned most of us to remain in a constant state of fight or
flight. While there is not necessarily a saber-toothed tiger chasing us on a regular basis, as
there may have been for our ancestors, we often experience similar physiological response
to the stressors of daily life -- running late for work, traffic on the daily commute, public
speaking, first dates, parenting, etc. And these metaphorical predators never quite seem to
go away as we hold on to them in our anxious thoughts and worries from day to day.
The reason it is important to understand the difference between the sympathetic and
parasympathetic nervous system and the effect massage has on them is that being stuck in a
constant state of fight or flight (or freeze) has been shown to have many health detriments,
such as weight gain and a depressed immune system. The pressure applied in a moderate to
deep tissue massage (done without eliciting a pain response) can help activate the
parasympathetic nervous system and slow down the sympathetic nervous system. So, yes,
it’s actually good for you to learn to relax!
One of the best ways I have found to provide my clients the deep, relaxing pressure they
desire while eliciting as little pain response as possible, is a specialized massage technique
known as Ashiatsu. This modality utilizes the therapist’s feet instead of their hands to
provide broad, deep pressure. Ashiatsu is ideal for achieving deeper pressure with little to
no pain because the surface area of the ‘tool’ applying the pressure is increased and long,
smooth, stokes are used to maintain consistent pressure throughout. One of my clients said
after their “ashi” session that it reminded them of the comfort of a weighted blanket.
In addition to the benefits to your muscles and nervous system, Ashiatsu can also help
improve posture and circulation, decrease chronic pain, and improve joint mobility.
Ashiatsu is available at our sports massage center for sessions of 60 or 90 minutes. Schedule
your Ashi massage today and let me help chase your saber- tooth tigers away!
Moderate pressure of massage can cause a parasympathetic nervous system response:
Increased sympathetic nervous system activity demonstrate in obese patients:
Nicholas Garman, LMT NSCA-CPT