Natural Medicine Pain Relief with Healing Touch

It’s human nature to use touch to alleviate pain and suffering. If you’re a parent, you know this first hand. We use touch to calm a frightened child, to reassure her that everything is all right, that she isn’t alone.

Our hands seem to have a language and an understanding all their own — they yearn to reach out, to soothe fevered foreheads and aching tummies, to rub aching feet, legs, backs. It’s instinctive. No wonder that for thousands of years, healers have used touch and massage as an integral part of their practice. In many countries, including Germany, Japan and China, massage therapy never fell out of favor even with the advent of modern medicine. Not so in the United States. By the 1950s massage was virtually unheard of here, at least in the context of healing and medicine. It was dismissed as unscientific along with herbalism and other forms of traditional medicine. Responsibility for health and well-being was taken out of the hands of the average person and given over to the experts who relied primarily on pharmaceutical drugs, surgery and the latest in medical technology.

Things started to shift in the 1960s and 1970s. People began to reject the established way of doing things in favor of a more personalized, back-to-nature approach. These were exciting times. We learned about the healing power of herbs, the importance of whole foods, and most exciting of all, the mind/body (and then mind/body/spirit) connection. We looked to other cultures for inspiration, ideas, and healing techniques. We wanted to take responsibility for our own health, to challenge the disease model of medicine.

We’ve come a long way, especially in the last decade. Practices that were once labeled “alternative” at best are now “complementary,” and an increasing number of doctors willingly collaborate with bodyworkers, energy healers, and medical intuitives. The growth and maturity of the holistic health community is a good thing but it can be confusing and the field of bodywork is no exception. One website I checked out while researching this article listed over 100 different types of “bodywork.” The list stretched the definition quite a bit to include forms of movement like T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Qi Gong, body-centered psychotherapies, and energy work like Reiki. For the purpose of this article, bodywork is limited to modalities in which the practitioner massages, kneads, stretches, or applies pressure to the body.

Massage as we have come to know it was originally brought to the United States in the 1850s by two New York doctors who studied in Sweden. The first clinics were opened in Boston and Washington after the Civil War. Swedish massage itself was developed by Per Henrik Ling in the 1830s. It involves soft tissue manipulation using basic strokes and techniques: effleurage (long strokes usually toward the heart), petrissage (lifting, rolling, kneading strokes), friction (circular strokes), vibration, and tapotement (tapping). These techniques are incorporated into the various types of massage therapies available today, most of which were developed since the 1960s. These include:

  • Deep tissue massage — Pressure is deeper and more intense than Swedish massage to release chronic patterns of muscle tension.
  • Sports massage — Designed to enhance performance and aid in recuperation from injury.
  • Neuromuscular massage — Deep massage that concentrates finger pressure on specific individual muscles designed to release trigger points or intense knots of muscle tension. It’s a good method of pain control.
  • Esalen massage — The main focus is to create a state of deep relaxation rather than to relieve muscle tension or aches and pains.

Research has shown that massage increases circulation, reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates inactive muscles aiding recovery from injury or inactivity. It also increases the production of endorphins, the body’s “feel good,” pain-relieving chemicals. Ongoing studies on the effectiveness of massage involve cancer and AIDS patients; premature, HIV and drug-exposed infants; people suffering from migraines and depression; patients recovering from surgery; and autistic children. So far results are invariably positive.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the number of adults who have had a massage in the past twelve months has more than doubled in the past five years, along with the number of therapists. Many businesses now offer weekly on-site massages as a company perk resulting in decreased employee turn-over, increased alertness, and improved performance.

What to Expect: Most people turn to massage for pain reduction or to relieve stress and anxiety. The practitioner will need to know where it hurts, where it’s tight, and what you expect from treatment.

Massage is done without clothes (except for underpants) on a massage table. The body is covered with a light blanket or sheet and only the parts being worked on are exposed at any one time. Oil or lotion is used to facilitate stroking and kneading techniques. A typical session lasts one hour and the whole body is treated but longer or shorter sessions or treatments that focus on a particular area, such as the back or neck and head, can be arranged.

Structural Integration

In the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. Ida P. Rolf began her pioneering work of creating a system of soft tissue manipulation designed to “organize the body in gravity” called structural integration. Everyone referred to it as Rolfing, which is now a trademarked name. Dr. Rolf began teaching at Esalen in the 1960s, and in 1972 she formed the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration in Boulder, Colorado which teaches and continues to develop her work. The basic premise is that aging, injuries, emotional stress and poor posture all contribute to imbalances in the body which we experience as lack of energy and flexibility, headaches, and body aches and pains. Rolfing seeks to bring the body back into balance and realigned with gravity by restoring elasticity to the myofascia or connective tissue of the body. Other forms of structural integration are basically takeoffs on Dr. Rolf’s work.

Eric Jacobson, a Boston area Rolfer in private practice for over 25 years, compares the myofascia to sheets of plastic wrap. Every joint, muscle, bone, and organ in the body is surrounded by it. In some places it’s as thin as a nylon stocking; in others it’s quite thick. At the ends of muscles it comes together and becomes tendon which attaches muscle to the bone. The fascia shapes the body and gives it strength. Ideally the fascia is elastic but chronic strain or injury can greatly reduce it’s elasticity. Over time it can become as hard as a piece of aluminum. This limits where your muscles and bones can be, restricts range of motion, and inhibits circulation and sensation. Signs of degeneration include rounded shoulders, back pain, difficulty standing upright for periods of time, slumping over the computer, feeling less energetic and less flexible. Rolfing consists of patterns of pressure designed to restore elasticity to the myofascia and balance the myofascial relationships in the body.

Rolfing is popular with athletes, dancers, and others who want to improve their performance or heal from stresses or injuries. Some people choose Rolfing as a way of releasing old emotions held in the body so they can move on in their lives. The benefits of Rolfing include better body alignment and posture, greater ease in breathing, increased vitality, freedom of movement and grace, awareness of the body and the space it occupies, reduced tension, increased understanding of feelings and emotions, more restful sleep, and improved skin and muscle tone.

Of all the forms of body work, Rolfing is perhaps the least understood. Many shy away from it because they believe it is painful. Certainly there may be moments that are intense or stretch the limits of comfort, but skillful Rolfers develop an excellent intuition about such things and adjust their touch to accommodate your needs. Eric reports that he can sense when a client is tensing due to discomfort and will ask “How’s the pressure?” He advises clients that if it hurts, to say so. The Rolf Institute, which has continued and expanded Ida Rolf’s work since her death, has developed a broad range of techniques that produce results with minimal discomfort. Variations have been developed, making it possible to tailor treatments to each client’s needs. Rolfing Movement Integration helps clients become aware of ingrained patterns and gives them the means to change them.

What to Expect: Rolfing consists of a series of ten sessions, each approximately an hour and a half long, scheduled between one and three weeks apart. At the initial session, the practitioner evaluates posture and movement patterns and asks about aches and pains or injuries. This evaluation is done in your underwear. “Before” pictures may be taken. (The “after” pictures taken at the last session are often quite remarkable!) The practitioner uses hands, fingers, knuckles, the elbow and even the whole lower arm to loosen and lengthen the fascia surrounding muscles and joints. Each session has specific goals and builds on the last to gradually align the body and achieve long- lasting results. The whole body is treated each time (although the movements, touches, and stretches may vary) and the work of the previous session is integrated and moved forward and if necessary, revisited. Each session feels whole and complete. Some people experience a release of negative emotions, others don’t. Since Rolfing is largely about support — how the lower body supports the upper body — people often leave the sessions feeling better about themselves, more confident — more supported. And after all the sessions are completed, you may even be taller!

Does Rolfing last? According to Eric, yes. “You don’t have to be born or grow up again. Connective tissue will happily remain elastic unless physical injury or chronic prolonged tension tightens it up again. Generally when people come back it’s because they want to go further, get freer in their bodies.” For these folks there’s an advanced series, an additional three to five sessions of “post-ten” work. Is it necessary to take all ten sessions? Not always. Even one session can be of benefit and sometimes a specific problem can be corrected after just two or three sessions. It’s up to the individual.

A variation of Rolfing, Hellerwork is a form of structural integration founded in 1979 by former Rolfer, Joseph Heller. It combines deep tissue work with movement education to teach the correct use of the body in daily activities. It also includes verbal dialogue to help the client become aware of the relationship between emotions, attitudes, and the body. (Today Rolfing also incorporates movement education). Hellerwork consists of eleven 90-minute sessions.

Shiatsu & Oriental Bodywork

Shiatsu is an ancient form of Japanese body work that dates back to the tenth century when Japanese monks traveled to China to study Buddhism. They observed the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and brought it back with them to Japan where it was integrated with the traditional massage-type healing that predominated at that time.

TCM itself goes back thousands of years. It is based on an understanding of qi (ki in Japan), the essential life force, and the role it plays in health. Qi is the creative energy of the universe, inseparable from life itself. Unlike western medicine, TCM focuses on the whole person rather than on a particular disease or symptom and is primarily a system of preventative health care. According to TCM, illness, disease and pain are all caused by an imbalance or blockage of qi. When qi is strong and flowing freely we feel great; when qi is weak or blocked we don’t.

Qi flows into our bodies from the earth (yin energy) and the from the heavens (yang energy). It moves along energy pathways, or meridians in the body, which roughly follow the paths of nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels. There are fourteen main meridians, twelve of which connect to organs in the body: heart, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, pericardium, triple warmer, spleen, lungs, kidneys, bladder, liver, gallbladder. (In TCM the triple warmer is involved in the circulation of energy and body fluids between the organs of reproduction and elimination, the organs of digestion, and the heart and lungs. There is no western equivalent).

Each organ has a job description that has to do with our physical as well as emotional health. When a TCM practitioner speaks of an organ, she refers not necessarily to the physical organ in the body but to the qualities and emotions associated with it. For example, physically the liver is an organ of detoxification and purification. In TCM it is also the processor of emotions. When liver qi is blocked or congested, either due to unexpressed feelings or from physical toxins like chemicals, alcohol, or junk food, we are likely to feel angry, depressed, and irritable. Physically we may have headaches, skin rashes, and suffer from allergies. Another example: In TCM the heart is the “Home of the Spirit” and the ruler of the body. A lack of joy, love, and pleasure weakens heart qi. The heart is also the voice of the immune system so when you listen to the voice of your heart you are also hearing the voice of your immune system. A blockage or imbalance in the Heart meridian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem with your physical heart, although if the blockage remains it could eventually cause problems as your immune system will be compromised. The organs are all connected and impact each other. For instance, when we have unresolved emotions (liver qi) our heart qi becomes blocked.

Located along the meridians are over 300 pressure points where qi is most active and where blockages can be felt most clearly. Acupuncturists insert needles or burn Chinese herbs at these points to release blocked qi. Shiatsu, which means “finger pressure” in Japanese, uses finger and thumb pressure instead of needles to stimulate the flow of qi along the meridians and bring the body back into balance. Kikuko Zutrau Miyazaki, teacher and founder of the Boston Shiatsu School in Cambridge, MA explains, “Shiatsu works to decongest the meridians, dissolve the energetic accumulation, and let energy flow into the area of deficiency where more energy is needed. It is very similar to acupuncture. The only difference is the tools we use.” Practitioners also incorporate pressing, sweeping motions, gentle shaking, rotating, lifting, and rolling to release blocked energy and revitalize qi.

Shiatsu is an effective treatment for a wide variety of difficulties ranging from emotional problems to physical ailments of every kind to stress-related disorders. But don’t expect to be “cured” of an illness without maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Healing is a process; it doesn’t just happen. Shiatsu is a catalyst in the process.

What to Expect: Shiatsu is done fully clothed, but avoid bulky items. Kikuko explained this is because shiatsu works on the energetic system and it’s not necessary to have direct contact with the skin. “No fuss, no mess,” she laughed. The session will take a little over an hour. Some practitioners work on a thick mat on the floor, others prefer to use a table. In addition to describing current health concerns, expect to answer some questions about your general health and lifestyle. A diagnosis is made by observing your posture, walk, skin color, and the quality of your voice. The quality of your energy will also be diagnosed by palpating the abdomen (the hara) and by feeling the energy flowing through the meridians, noting blockages and areas of fullness or emptiness.

Breathing deeply throughout the session helps move qi, brings oxygen into the body, clears the head, and is relaxing. Places of tension — you know where they are — hold excess qi which is dispersed using techniques such as stretching, pressing, lifting, and rotating. Weak areas are strengthened by stimulating and holding techniques that encourage the flow of energy. Sometimes an area may need to be held patiently for a few minutes until the energy begins to fill the emptiness. The treatment should not be painful although some areas will feel intense. Emotions may surface. As the qi is dispersed, the intensity will vanish and a release will be felt. Will the emotional pain be healed? Maybe. “Working with the body is ten times faster than talk therapy,” according to Kikuko.

Practitioners of shiatsu are often licensed or certified as massage therapists. Other forms of Oriental bodywork include jin shin jyutsu which involves gently holding or touching acupuncture points to release energy blocks; and jin shin do which incorporates breathing techniques and Japanese finger pressure (points are held as long as one to three minutes). Neither of these methods involve massage and both are done fully clothed.

Choosing A Practitioner

Many practitioners have trained in a variety of techniques although they may not be certified in all of them. An increasing number also incorporate other modalities such as Reiki, therapeutic touch, reflexology, and aromatherapy into their work. When deciding which type of bodywork is best for you consider carefully what you hope to get out of the sessions and trust your intuition. For example, many years ago I caught myself slouching whenever I sat at a table. So I forced myself to sit straighter. When I did, I noticed that I felt better — more alert, more confident. But before I knew it, the slouch was back and with it a less confident, less positive frame of mind. I decided to give Rolfing a try. It was the right choice. At another point, during a particularly stressful period of my life I decided on massage and treated myself every three weeks or so. It was a life saver. Recently my aches and pains and lack of energy, not to mention a bad case of “muddy-mind,” were banished after a wonderful shiatsu session.

If you’re not sure who to call for an appointment, consider asking friends and family members for a reference. Or check out the ads and the directory listings in this magazine. Another option is to contact training programs or professional organizations for a list of graduates or certified practitioners in your area. You won’t know if you “click” until you meet face-to-face, but you can ask questions to get an idea of compatibility.

Ask about credentials: Where did she study? Is she certified? By whom? How long has she been in practice? Make sure to bring up any concerns you may have regarding the treatment itself. Will it hurt? How does the therapist deal with any emotional issues that may come up? And if you have body issues, be up front about them. Do you feel reassured by the responses?

Although I’m sure there are practitioners who see their work as just a job, I haven’t met any. Everyone I’ve met loves what they do and gets great satisfaction from helping people. It’s a calling, a path of service. An interesting phenomena is the number of practitioners who chose bodywork as a profession after making major life changes, perhaps due to a personal healing experience, or to a general dissatisfaction with their life.

As former nurse Arlene Dorischild, now a massage therapist and owner of Amethyst Point in Worcester, MA explained, “Something happens and you switch careers totally. In my case, I became frustrated with what doctors had to offer me. I had been diagnosed when I was 30 years old with acute rheumatoid arthritis. They wanted to put me on a drug that meant I’d have to have regular blood tests. I couldn’t see myself on it long-term, so I went to the library and I studied. I began to understand what I had and see that there were definitely emotional components to the disease. So I had counseling, I looked at anger issues, and today at 58 I don’t have any signs of the disease. I realized there was more to illness than what is generally understood. I became interested in ‘holism’.”

Bodywork involves an exchange of energy, but not simply between client and therapist. Kikuko explains, “The healer is a channel for heavenly energy or white light which has organizing principles that help with healing. Energy flows into the healer through the crown chakra and both healer and client benefit from an endless supply of vitality.”

Not all bodyworkers would put it that way, of course. Rolfers, for instance, are concerned primarily with the structure of the body and its relationship to gravity. But as Eric explained, “Gravity was Dr. Rolf’s vision of energy. She used to say over and over that her goal was to get a body where the structure was so integrated with gravity that it actually supported the structure, but as people age gravity slows them down. Some Rolfers are almost gravity mystics, talking about how gravity energy flows through the body.”

Bodywork has physical as well as emotional and spiritual effects. Circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid is increased, the toxic by-products of chronic tension are released, range of motion is improved, and stress is reduced. As tight muscles are relaxed and blocked energy is released, old emotions can come to the surface to be released along with the tension. Research has documented that sufferers of acute and chronic pain, arthritis, epilepsy, anxiety and stress, depression, insomnia, muscle spasms, scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and workplace disorders like carpal tunnel all benefit from some form of bodywork. Studies confirm what practitioners and their clients already knew — that bodywork plays an important role in preventative health care as well as in the treatment of injuries and disease. One session feels great, but sometimes even one or a few can bring about a complete “cure.” At the very least, you’ll feel more comfortable in your own skin, experience fewer aches and pains, and your energy will be more balanced and sustained. This can’t help but have a positive effect on your confidence and outlook on life.

Susan Meeker-Lowry is a frequent contributor to Spirit of Change. She wishes to thank Kikuko Zutrau Miyazaki, Donna Boucher, Eric Jacobson and Arlene Dorischild for their willingness to share their knowledge and passion for this article.