Trauma and Massage Therapy
With PTSD Awareness Day coming up June 27th, this seems like a good time to talk about trauma and massage therapy.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is increasingly being viewed as one end of the trauma spectrum, and for many people dealing with the effects of trauma, massage therapy can be part of their healing.
PTSD can affect people exposed, either personally or as a witness, to an event involving violence, serious injury, death, or the threat of death. Intense perception of threat triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, leading to imbalances in neurotransmitters and hormones, in turn leading to emotional symptoms that can be debilitating. There can also be physical symptoms such as chronic tension and pain.
Many theorists consider the physical and emotional symptoms to be related. Peter Levine’s groundbreaking book on trauma “Waking the Tiger” and the more recent “Forward Facing Trauma Therapy” by Eric Gentry approach the treatment of trauma spectrum disorders, including PTSD, by focusing on physical tension held in the body. Both are excellent reads for laypeople, written by professionals.
Since muscular tension is tied to the physical and emotional pain of trauma disorders, massage therapy might be an effective component of treatment. One important effect of massage therapy is stress reduction; massage decreases the fight, flight, or freeze response, decreasing the levels of the neurochemicals involved in that response. It also decreases muscle tension and pain.
A pilot study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a division of the National Institutes of Health) on National Guard veteran patients resulted in a significant reduction in pain, tension, irritability, anxiety and depression when patients received even just one 20-minute weekly massage. These reductions were felt immediately after massage and long-term analysis suggested decreased baseline levels of tension and irritability.
According to the same study, perceived stigma associated with seeking behavioral health care is still a hurdle for many PTSD sufferers. Massage therapy can also carry less of that stigma for patients.
Massage therapy triggers the body’s relaxation response in the brain, helps break the “fight or flight” cycle, can improve sleep function and circulation, and fights physical pain resulting from chronic tension or the traumatic injury itself.