Thursday, April 2, 2009


The effects of massage on the autonomic system

"The autonomic nervous system innervates smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, and glands. It is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which often act in antagonistic ways to regulate blood flow, secretions and organ function." (Gilroy, 2008).
The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. It performs such tasks as speeding up the heartbeat and secreting adrenaline. The parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as the 'rest and digest' response as it slows heart rate and processes like digestion work in this state.

Relaxation massages and strokes like effleurage and petrissage put the body into a parasympathetic state. Sports massages and strokes like tapotment and vibration put the body into a sympathetic state. Although all massages start with the body in a sympathetic state as instinct teaches us to be on guard until we know it is safe. And it is only a short period of time and then the body will change into the parasympathetic state if the purpose and strokes of the massage intend it to do so.

Massage decreases stress and anxiety, help with sleep disorders, relieve pain, improves circulation and improves immunity by decreasing levels of cortisol. Massage can also improve emotional well-being, improving relationships, mood and satiety.

The effects of massage strokes

Different strokes have different effects and different intentions on the body. Touch/holding is used to establish contact. It is used so client is not alarmed by you rushing into movement. It initiates the beginning of the massage. As well as at the end of the massage it can bring the massage to a finish.

Effleurage is used as the opening strokes of a massage. Saying 'hello' to the area and helping to spread lubricant. It warms up the part of the body you are about to work. Effleurage flushes wastes, helps venous and lymphatic return to the heart and helps body to relax.

Petrissage includes strokes such as cross-overs, kneading and wringing. Twisting movements help to break adhesions. Petrissage moves fluids and increases blood flow.

Compression can be used on draped clients. It is described as "rhythmic pumping on the muscle" (Salvo, 2007). It can stimulate or relax the muscles and the nervous system depending on the speed of the compression.

Tapotment strokes include cupping, hacking and pounding. These movements stimulate the sympathetic nervous system so effectively getting the body to wake-up. This is useful when a client is going back to work after their massage. Tapotment also increases blood flow, relieves pain, tone weak muscles and has the ability to contract and relax muscles. It can also help to remove phlegm from the lungs.

Vibration is a little similar to tapotment in respect to the effects. Although in vibration the therapists hands don't leave the client. Vibration wakes up the nerves. It also relieves pain, increases circulation and helps to clear the respiratory tract.

Other effects of massage

Alot of these effects of massage are closely related. Blood flow increases due to massage strokes helping venous return back to the heart. Blood pressure decreases with blood vessel dilation when using Swedish and relaxing type massage. Muscle tension, often caused by stress, and usually leading to pain and stiffness is reduced. With the parasympathetic nervous system activated muscles relax. Because the blood flow is increased more oxygen and nutrients are getting to the muscles and more waste is being taken away. Endorphins are released which reduce pain and also information from pressure receptors being disrupted from getting to the spinal cord helps relieve pain.

Lymph flow increases circulation with the pressure from the massage. Digestion works in the parasympathetic nervous system so by the body being in this state digestion will occur. Digestion is increased by the body getting rid of wastes eg bowel contents.

Massage improves healing of connective tissue. It helps hold nutrients in bones which helps with fracture healing along with increased circulation. Deep massage limits scar tissue formation and helps form a strong scar that wont interfere with body movement. Massage also decreases adhesions forming.

Massage helps clients with sleep disorders. A massage at the end of the day for these clients can help the client relax, helping them to sleep. The increased delta wave activity encourages sleep and relaxation as well.

Concentration can be helped with massage by decreasing stress and relaxing the mind. This increases mental alertness. Increased levels of dopamine and serotonin improve mood and satiety. Increased levels of oxytocin improves relationships and bonding. Also reduced feelings of depression, improved body image and self-esteem help with improving mood and satiety. If you feel good you look good. Positive attitude and energy can encourage happy relationships.

Class notes
Text books

Gilroy A. MacPherson B. Ross L. (2008) Atlas of Anatomy, New York, Thieme Medical Publishers Inc.

Salvo S. (2007) Massage Therapy Principles and Practice 3rd edition, Missouri, Saunders Elsevier