Massage is often seen as a means to relax, and often, more for leisure rather than recovery. The wonderful thing about massage is that it does both. It can help to relax, provide luxurious experiences, and decrease pain from illness, injuries, post surgical procedures, and relief of stress and anxiety.
From personal experience as a therapist of 17 years and also as a patient, I know firsthand that massage is very beneficial when injured and enduring post-surgery recovery. Massage is safe and generally recommended soon after injury and surgery. Massage can often be performed on the patient in the hospital or at home if required to stay in bed. Here are the most important reasons to receive massage/bodywork after surgery, and to help heal severe injuries from my personal experience and based on science.
- Massage in general relaxes you mentally. Being injured or recovering from any type of surgery, not matter the severity, is a stressful event, which can slow down the healing process. While massage is obviously helping the muscles relax, it helps the mind slow down and decrease worry and anxiety by increasing serotonin and other neurohormones. Loving touch can also build trust with a patient and make them feel safe.
- The next obvious reason is muscle repair, decreased swelling and increased flexibility. With injuries and surgery, muscles are often cut and torn, bones broken or fractured. Joint replacement is also a huge reason to receive massage, as swelling and pain is often apparent, along with muscle damage. Massage helps to flush lactic acid and other metabolic waste from muscles, and tendons. This allows oxygen-rich and nutrient-rich blood to flow into the injured areas and begin the repair process. Massage is gentle in the beginning of recovery, and with time, neuromuscular techniques can be introduced. It is good to remember that simple Swedish massage can, and will help the healing process begin. Deeper work comes later down the road, and is always tailored to the patient’s needs and their pain threshold.
- Massage helps patients deal with pain. This is a no brainer, but according to Dr. Daniel Hinshaw, a surgeon in the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare system, he believes the effect of massage on the body is like a dose of morphine or a morphine drip. In 2012, a study was done among cardiac surgery patients and found that massage therapy significantly reduced pain, anxiety, muscle tension, and improved relaxation. I know this to be true from working at Saint Anthony Central Hospital in Denver, now Saint Anthony West in Golden , CO. Working with cardiac patients was challenging, but once they received touch, their demeanors changed, and they could let go a bit and relax.
- Massage shortens post-op healing time. As mentioned above, increased blood flow enhances nutrient rich blood to the injured area and shortens healing time. Studies are beginning to show shortened hospital stays when massage is offered in the hospital and when patients receive massage PRIOR to surgery. Reduced hospital stays is partially due to less drug administration. Regular massage also prevents injuries from occurring during extreme physical activities such as sports.
- Massage helps prevent scar tissue. Scar tissue massage is becoming increasingly more popular. The benefits are often very noticeable and truly help decrease pain on and around scars. Massage helps break up scar tissue and prevents formation of more scar tissue in the long run. This is often done gently at first, and as the scar begins to heal, cross fiber friction techniques are applied more assertively. This should only be performed by a therapist or physical therapist that is specifically trained in scar tissue massage management and a doctor’s written note is required PRIOR to this work.
- Massage promotes flexibility and mobility. Muscles can atrophy and at the same time become stiff. Joints can become stiff also when injured, and if a patient is bed bound or chair bound for long periods of time, this atrophy and stiffness worsens and pain continues. If a patient is immovable, massage is the best way to heat up and exercise muscles and joints for faster recovery. It also helps atrophy slow down without moving the patient.
- Massage strengthens the immune system. Relaxed muscles stimulate oxygen supply to the organs and skin which can help strengthen the immune system and decrease infections. Massage can increase the activity level of the body’s white blood cells that combat viruses. Massage may increase the body’s natural killer cells, aid in the fight against bacteria and infection, and naturally enhance the body’s ability to get nourishment to important areas. Regular massage is the key to keeping the immune system up to par. It is recommended to receive regular massage to help reduce injury and to prepare the body for surgery.
- Massage improves mood. As discussed in a former blog I wrote on massage helping with depression and anxiety, massage does indeed change our brain chemistry. Research is showing that massage creates pain-blocking sensations to the brain by increasing neurohormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and Oxytocin. Massage has shown to decrease stress hormones such as cortisol produced by the adrenal glands, and also decreases epinephrine. Massage increases endorphins that are “feel good” chemicals lasting up to 48 hours after a massage session.
To conclude, always ask your doctor or surgeon when it is safe to receive massage after a surgery or major injury. It is also very important to be proactive, and ask as many questions as possible about massage and alternative health care. Massage is slowing being introduced into the health industry as an integral part of care, but we still have a long way to go, and it is essential we all speak our voice about what is important to us in our health recovery. On a personal note, massage is good for anyone, whether healthy or not. Even during cancer treatment, massage has been shown to be safe. Massage does not spread the disease as believed 10+ years ago. A cancer blog is a blog for a later date, but it is important to realize that ill and injured people can and should receive massage therapy as part of their recovery! I read recently on the internet by a person who had no credentials in medicine or massage that massage is ONLY suitable for a healthy person. This writer is highly misinformed and while they were trying to be helpful, that information is only detrimental to someone who wants to receive massage when injured or ill. The only merit in this statement is if a client has the flu or a contagious illness. Wait until you are no longer contagious, and then receive a massage session.
Therapeutic Massage and loving touch is vital for all people, especially ill and injured folks. Never be afraid to ask if massage can benefit you if you are undergoing surgery, have chronic illness, or have a severe injury. There is always a benefit to be touched in a loving and therapeutic way whether you are healthy and in your prime, or ill and undergoing surgery.
Madeline has been a practicing massage therapist for 17 years. She graduated from Boulder College of Massage Therapy in 2001. She has spent the majority of that time working with injured and ill clients, often working in the hospital setting. Madeline writes a blog for Harmonic Healing Massage in Denver, CO.