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Massage and the Central Nervous System

Posted on Jan 17, 2017.

In a world that is constantly evolving be this through advances in technology, changes in the working environment or shifts in political agenda, it is clear to see why complimentary therapy such as massage will have a positive impact. We as adults are pressured to do more, to learn more, to adapt to change and of course to exercise and challenge ourselves. The stresses strains and burdens that exist in modern society and faced by us mere mortals can at times be debilitating and impact how we function throughout the day.

The human body is a fantastic bit of kit when it comes to change and responds by appropriating a multitude of chemical reactions to restore balance (homeostasis).

Structure of the Central Nervous System

The central nervous system comprises of the brain and the spinal cord running the length of the vertebrae. This essentially is the bodies information computer when it comes to senses from skin and muscles. It also regulates internal organ function.

The central nervous system works in symphony with our endocrine system which produces hormones and chemicals to cater for every given situation.

Research shows that therapeutic massage stimulates our central nervous system to produce beneficial hormones whilst at the same time reduces the negative hormones that have a detrimental effect on us. Genius or what? (source T Field www.ncbi.gov)

Hormones, their effects and response to massage

Dopamine, also known as the "Happy Hormone", a mood influencer in terms of joy, inspiration and enthusiasm. Evidence shows that low levels of dopamine impinges on motor control, attributes to clumsiness and low mood. Massage is proven to increase levels in dopamine thus in turn increase the pleasure factor we experience through massage.

Serotonin, also known as the "Calming Hormone", Serotonin regulates emotional response and calms us down as well as reducing irritability. People with low serotonin usually suffer from depression, low self esteem or compulsive disorders and are often on Serotonin medication. Massage has positive effects increasing levels of Serotonin thus restoring a sense of calm.

Endorphins, also known as "The Pain Reliever", endorphins are produced by our bodies to reduce pain and restore the sense of wellness. Again massage impacts to increase level of endorphins available for take up.

Cortisol, also known as the "Fight or Flight Enhancer / Stress Hormone", high levels of cortisol has been linked to anxiety, sleep deprivation and stress related illnesses. Massage has been proven to reduce levels of this hormone and serves to restore the sense of calm we all crave.

These hormones play their part across two main strands of our central nervous system.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous system (PN).

When we are startled, nervous aroused (including sexual arousal) or frightened, the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

Key signs are:

  • Increase in heart rate
  • Increase in breathing rate
  • Blood vessels dilate to increase blood supply
  • Slowness in digestive function
  • Erector pili muscles in hair follicles cause the "hair standing on end effect"
  • Paleness in skin where blood is diverted in concentration to where its needed most
  • Adrenal glands are stimulated to produce adrenalin and noradrenaline

When we are in a relaxed and calm state the branch of the autonomic nervous system is brought into play. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PN).

Key signs are:

  • Slowness in heart beat
  • Slowness in breath
  • Tension release in muscles
  • Blood vessels to muscle turn to normal
  • Peristalsis happens and digestive juices increase

For the massage therapist we can tune in to both these strands of the nervous system and it is very important that we do and notice fundamental changes with our client. One simple way of doing this is through our choice of stroke. For instance effleurage or nurturing holding strokes engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System and induce calming sedative effects, ideal when relaxation, stress relief and restorative calmness is required. Whereas changing stroke to a deep tissue or percussion stroke i.e. hacking, pecking or tapping, the uptake of the Sympathetic Nervous System take place ideal to invigorate, or to respond to more prolonged issues with our muscles i.e sports injury. This is ideal when our clients respond to managing pain. This puts our client in a state of high alert to deal with variances in stroke when treating an affected area.

One other important thing to bear in mind as massage therapists are contraindication/local contraindication to massage where the central nervous system is concerned. For instance if a person is diagnosed with epilepsy , working in the head region could impact on brain output, hence best avoided. Therefore it is always best to check on all CNS related pathologies through our pathology handbook, medication journal or other related pathology information available.

In Conclusion

Massage therapy is extremely effective in restoring the body to its normal state (homeostasis) and we as therapists have a fantastic set of tools to our disposal. When used well and in accordance with ethical practices and guidelines, we are able to have a positive effect on our clients.

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