While there are many diverse and effective massage modalities that can help in managing illness, injury, pain, recovery and the like, one should never underestimate the health benefits of a classic, Swedish massage. This modality is also often referred to as a relaxation massage. Relaxed is more than a state of mind, it is a state of health and body on a physiological level. There are, without question, real, positive physiological affects that take place at the hands -- pun intended -- of skilled therapist and Swedish or relaxation massage. Many studies have shown that trained, moderate touch, such as effleurage, quells the sympathetic nervous system, or the stress response, and initiates the parasympathetic nervous system. Why is this important to your overall health and wellness? I'm glad you asked.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating the functions of our internal organs. The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and also controls some muscle function. We are usually unaware of ANS related activity in the body, such as pupil dilation or a change in heart rate or blood pressure, because these functions occur on an involuntary and reflexive basis. There are three main divisions of the ANS -- the enteric, sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. As it pertains to Swedish massage, we will focus on the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System and the Fight or Flight Response
The "firing" of the sympathetic nervous system is what initiates the flight or flight response (stress response). The physiological impact of fight or flight on the body can easily be considered a foundation on which stress related medicine is built. Triggered by episodes of stress, the fight or flight response is our body's automatic, inborn and unconscious response that is designed to ready the body to defend or flee from real or perceived harm or threat. Fight or flight is a mechanism of survival. When you are confronted with stress of any variety, whether it be from internal factors or the world around you, fight or flight is triggered. This response corresponds to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which when stimulated, initiates a sequence of nerve cell reactions and the release of chemicals that prepare the body for running or fighting.
Hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream and move through our bodies, causing a series of changes. Our rate of respiration increases, for example. A portion of our blood supply is diverted away from our digestive tract, hence halting digestion, and is redirected into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for retreat or physical retaliation. Our pupils dilate, we become more aware and our vision sharpens. Our impulses become sharper and faster, the sensation and perception of pain diminishes and our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared, on every level, for fight or flight. You can surely imagine the long term affects on a body in a stress induced, frequent or chronic fight or flight state of being.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment."
The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Rest and Digest
On the flip side of the stress induced, fight or flight, sympathetic nervous system response is the kinder, gentler parasympathetic nervous system and rest and digest. To be more specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of the rest and digest response and activates during times of low stress. You need the rest and digest response for health and balance. This physiological state of being conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, it increases intestinal and gland activity, relaxes muscles, as well as sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. Your parasympathetic nervous system maintains and restores your energy. It directs blood to your digestive tract and makes sure you actively digest food. It also maintains your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate at a low level. It brings the body to a neutral and homeostatic balanced state where you can function better and heal. There is a tremendous amount of research indicating that relaxing, moderate massage therapy relaxes the autonomic nervous system, initiating firing of the parasympathetic nervous system and resulting in a state of rest and digest. The relaxation and wellness you feel after a good, quality Swedish massage is more than just a moment. It is a state of physiological health radiating from the inside out.
Rob Zukowski is a New York State LMT, certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and holds a degree in Occupational Studies, with a focus on massage therapy, from the prestigious Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He has advanced training in sports massage, various relaxation therapies, and training in multi-therapeutic approaches to massage for oncology.
In addition to private practice, his experience includes being a massage therapist, lead therapist and member relationships manager in assorted fitness centers, spas, clinics and holistic healing settings and working in corporate wellness environments. Rob also works as a client services manager at a healing center, authors his own column on the subject of complementary and alternative medicine in a national HIV/AIDS magazine, works in student outreach and lectures on therapeutic massage for various pathologies.