Hands-On Bodywork Provides Healing Touch Natural Medicine

Healing touch is coming into its own, motivating consumers in this country to spend between $4 and $6 billion dollars a year for the hands-on care of professional bodyworkers.

According to a national survey conducted for the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), approximately 114 million visits were made last year by people seeking out massage therapy and its allied touch therapies. About 27% of what the public spends on “unconventional healthcare" is spent for massage therapy and its related disciplines. What are people getting that brings them back time and again, inspiring them to send their friends and relatives as well?

Experts in medicine estimate that anywhere from 60-80% of visits to doctors are for stress-related complaints for which there is no specific diagnosis, and often, no helpful treatment. In the recent survey for the AMTA conducted by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, NJ, data indicated that people seek bodywork most often for stress reduction and self-care, and second, for medical reasons. While popular wisdom holds that healing touch can be beneficial in a variety of situations, only recently has scientific inquiry begun to document the evidence available through controlled research of just how effective bodywork is as a healing modality. Unfortunately, its acceptance into the mainstream is slowed by many people’s unfamiliarity with the mind-body connection, a concept which is central to understanding how bodywork heals, as the following personal accounts illustrate .

• Brenda, age 12, reclines somewhat nervously on a treatment table for a craniosacral session, a touch therapy that encourages health through gentle freeing of restrictions, especially in the head and spine. As the skillful therapist helps her feel comfortable and safe, Brenda is able to gradually to let go of the pain, fear and sense of violation her body was holding after being hit in the face with a hockey stick at school. On the table, she realizes she needs to write a note to the boy who hit her so he will understand how his action affected her and feels greatly relieved after the session.

• In a deep-tissue bodywork session at a healing retreat center, Elizabeth, a woman in her 40s, asks for deeper work around a scar on her foot. As the therapist does this, Elizabeth is soon overtaken with wrenching sobs and relives the childhood accident she was never allowed to cry about in which she had jumped joyously into a lake, only to have her foot badly cut on a broken bottle. Her well-meaning mother had insisted everything would be fine and she was forbidden to cry as they drove to the emergency room and she got stitches. The therapist, checking now and then to make sure the client is alright, continues with the work until both realize the release of memory from the scar tissue is complete, and a sense of peace and awe settles into the room. They are both amazed that sensation has returned to the big toe that has been numb since the injury, and something deep has been heard and healed.

• Bruce, an athlete diagnosed with frozen shoulder and unable to move his arm more than a few inches away from his body, comes to the massage therapist discouraged and frustrated at the curtailment of his activity. He, like many people, is amazed at the way a remarkable state of relaxation takes over as each session progresses in spite of the mental activity that seems so dominant just before. His attitude about healing his body begins to shift from one of angry demand to supportive thinking about both his body and the healing process. During a series of sessions, normal movement is gradually restored and pain relieved. He is able to begin strengthening his shoulder again and can return to his sport. Practicing patience, of necessity, through his healing process, he has gained a new appreciation for the meaning of self-care and of his body’s healing capacities.

The growing array of scientific research projects on massage and other touch therapies echo and expand on these anecdotal stories. Massage therapy has been, by far, the target of the greatest number of controlled studies about touch. For a full listing of studies, go to www.pubmed.com, the National Library of Medicine’s research database. Search for massage therapy or the name of the therapy you are interested in. Not all modalities have been studied yet, however. The site lists numerous citations for massage, including the following:

• The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School has conducted a number of studies about the effects of massage, many of them focusing on the benefits of massage for pre-term and full-term infants and children. An encouraging new study from the Institute shows that massage reduces symptoms of autism in children, including improving on-task behaviors, sleep and social relatedness (Escalona, 2001).

• While we may naturally assume that massage can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and bestow relaxation, we might be surprised to learn that immune function is improved with massage (Zeitlin, 2000).

• Although acupuncture is often recommended for the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries or chronic muscular tension, The Center for Health Studies in Seattle, WA., recently published a study showing that, even in the long term, massage therapy is superior to acupuncture in relieving back pain (Cherkin, 2001). Although one study is not generally considered definitive, the data for this one is so convincing that other researchers will, no doubt, try to replicate or challenge these results.

Research has yet to shed light on what it is about hands-on therapies that makes them work. Candace Pert, author of The Molecules of Emotion, might say that touch helps to reestablish the internal chemical information flow that is key to healthy functioning on all levels. There are some studies that look specifically at the neurological and biochemical effects (which mostly demonstrate the neurology and biochemistry of relaxation), and a few advanced studies that have attempted to investigate the effects of hands-on work on the human energy field and chi or prana.

Regardless of the particular type of bodywork therapy, all methods share the healing element of touch, and the fact that the therapist is fully present and dedicated to the well-being of the client. The unique nature of the healing relationship is certainly part of the healing equation. Most practitioners agree that healing touch activates the innate wisdom of the individual to mobilize their own healing capacity. Through compassionate touch and mindful attention to the body, the space is created for mind, body, and spirit to come into focus together for the purpose of healing.

Commonly Asked Questions

Q: How do I know which type of bodywork is right for me?

A: This is purely a matter of personal preference, and your degree of comfort with the style of bodywork. You may need to try more than one modality or even more than one practitioner of the same type of work to find the right combination. You are shopping not only for a type of bodywork but for a practitioner too. It may take more than one session to be sure if a method is right for you but you should feel something positive the first time. Let intuition be your guide. Also consider whether you are looking for a male or female therapist, clothed or unclothed sessions, light or intense work. Are you willing to travel to sessions to find the right practitioner or is staying close to home a priority? How much of a financial commitment are you ready to invest in your healing? Thinking about these issues ahead of time will help you clarify your needs and find the right healing method for you more quickly.

Also keep an eye out for literature or other forms of information about different styles. The experiences of people you know can help to educate you about different types of work, too. Talk with different practitioners and ask them to explain their way of working. Touch therapies range from light to deep and from purely physiologically-based to purely energetic models, although many practitioners say it is impossible to separate the physical from the energetic in healing. Be aware that many bodywork practitioners incorporate a variety of techniques into their work including work with breathing, visualization, relaxation training, sound, affirmations, and stretching or strengthening exercises. Decide what you want and don’t want, but don’t be afraid to try something new if you think it has potential.

Q: How do I find a qualified, ethical practitioner?

A: Once you have decided on a modality to try, look for practitioners of the type of work that you are interested in. Often the easiest and best referrals come from friends, family, chiropractors, physicians or nurses, psychotherapists, etc., who you may be able to ask. If you cannot get a personal referral, advertising or websites can help you find excellent services. Once you get names, call and make your own assessment. Interview the person on the phone and get your important questions answered before scheduling an appointment. You may want to find out about the practitioner’s training, credentialing, and experience. You may feel this is unnecessary, however, if you have an excellent personal referral from someone who has seen them.

Certification — The more established disciplines require their practitioners to be certified in their work in order to perform the work. Find out if this is true and if the practitioner holds certification.

The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) is the main certifying body for massage practitioners, many of whom actually practice other modalities besides traditional massage. This certification means the individual has met certain education and experience standards deemed necessary within the profession. However, in some cases, excellent practitioners may not have certification in their field or less than exceptional practitioners sometimes do get certified, so certification is not always an absolute measure of competence.

Licensing — Massage therapy also requires licensing, which is regulated by Boards of Health, either at the local or state level, or both. Massachusetts, for example, does not have state licensing yet, so practitioners are only required to hold local licenses, the requirements for which, vary from town to town. A license to practice massage, like the NCBTMB certification, has become an umbrella for many types of bodywork, but to hold this license the practitioner must have completed an approved course of training in massage therapy. Many hands-on practitioners hold only their own modality’s certification and no massage licensing, feeling that their own training adequately prepares them for what they do.

Code of Ethics — Many disciplines have a code of ethics for their practitioners, about which you may inquire if you choose. Generally, they are much like codes of ethics for doctors and psychotherapists, requiring confidentiality, proper boundaries, respectful treatment, etc. Chances are you would know right away if you were being treated improperly in a session. Remember, you are the consumer and you decide what works for you!

Q: Will my health insurance pay for bodywork?

A: That depends on your specific coverage. A few states mandate its coverage. (Massachusetts does not). In the states where bodywork is covered, it is only covered for licensed massage therapists and occasionally for chiropractic or physical therapy. Some insurance companies are now experimenting with the idea of covering massage therapy by offering their customers a “network” of licensed, certified massage therapists who will provide sessions at a reduced fee if they are located through the health insurance listing. Since you, as the consumer, must still pay the entire session fee out of pocket, it’s not really covered, but is actually a reduced-fee referral service. Many qualified practitioners have refused to join these networks, being unwilling to accept reduced fees for their services, along with the added administrative burden of paperwork regularly required by the insurance companies.

Apara Borrowes, M.S., L.C.M.T., is a Boston area wellness coach, therapist, and consultant specializing in mind-body approaches to healing, health maintenance and stress reduction. She has a private practice in Arlington, MA, in which she offers a variety of complementary medicine modalities including healing touch, work with the breath, relaxation training, visualization and Focusing. She can be reached at 781-643-3955.