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Fibromyalgia and massage


For those of you who don't know much about Fibromyalgia; in simple terms it is characterized by widespread muscle pain, tenderness to touch and extreme fatigue. Researchers still don't know everything there is to know regarding this disease but an estimated 10 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of it. It seems to be more prevalent in middle aged women than any other group but is not limited to women only. Now, I am no doctor and I am by no means an expert on the subject. I am a massage therapist and I will try to explain briefly what I have learned about this debilitating illness.

This 'pain hypersensitivity' is the result of a chain reaction started by a malfunctioning gland in the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus produces a hormone (adrenalin) that activates the 'fight-or-flight' response when a person experiences stress. This is the miraculous phenomenon connected to our sympathetic nervous system that when we are faced with an emergency, adrenalin is released by the hypothalamus giving us the power to get through it. With fibromyalgia, the hypothalamus goes haywire and continually activates the fight-or-flight hormone, like a malfunctioning smoke alarm that sounds constantly, even when there is no smoke. This malfunction tends to occur when a person undergoes constant stress and lack of sleep for long periods of time. As a result, there is the constant releasing of the hormone causing "over-activity of pain-sensing nerves".

Massage therapy is commonly sought out by fibromyalgia patients to help manage their widespread chronic pain. Performing massage on this group can be challenging, since some sufferers are so sensitive to touch they can barely stand the feeling of clothes on their skin, let alone manual therapy. Studies are showing that it is not necessarily the muscles but the thin connective tissue that surrounds the muscles called 'fascia' that produces the pain. There are direct nerve linkages from the sympathetic nervous system to the fascia. Fascia is so rich with pain-sensing nerves and the constant pain-signals generated from the tight and inflamed fascia ultimately overwhelm the spinal cord and brain and induce a state of hyper-reactivity to pain.

So, how does massage therapy help a person who is so sensitive to touch they can hardly get through a session without suffering from extreme pain the entire time? The answer is with a massage technique called 'Myofascial' release. Essentially, the therapist slowly and gently tracts and holds the fascia (which lies between the skin and the muscle) at the barrier of resistance for 3-5 minutes to release "sticky" areas of restrictions or adhesions that are felt just below the surface of the skin. This modality uses a combination of extremely light, gentle, sustained pressure strokes that sink into the tissue very, very slowly. With fascia, gentle pressure, plus time and patience equals release. The result is amazing! The fibromyalgia sufferer might come to me in excruciating pain and after an hour of myofascial release therapy, she/he will leave almost pain free and the relief can be long lasting.

If you or someone you know has fibromyalgia and are having a difficult time finding relief, please seek out a massage therapist that practices myofascial release and give it a try. A single, one hour session might make all the difference in the world. This is not a cure for fibromyalgia but a form of pain management without the adverse side effects of drugs. It is not meant to replace what your doctor is already prescribing in your pain management regimen so please seek your doctor's advice before trying anything new. Information used in this article is from the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Massage & Bodywork Magazine.


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