Bodies on the Table: Blood Circulation

The second article in this series addresses another way your body responds to bodywork, massage therapy specifically – it is the aspect of circulation.  Increasing circulation of many of the body’s fluids is a benefit that is innate to the pushing, pulling, and stretching that accompanies most massage strokes – blood transport is the focus of this segment.

In Swedish-style massages, effleurage, petrissage, compression, and muscle stripping all share the goal of moving fluids.  Fluids can be defined as blood, lymph, water, or extra-cellular fluid; all forms transport nutrients, bacteria (good and bad), and waste in and out of the body.  Effective transport indicates good health – the cells are healthier and cellular-aging and -death is reduced.

virtualarterialflow110x110

virtual arterial flow (no surrounding cells)

Massage enlivens the theory that moving blood, specifically, toward the heart increases vasodilation (venous circumference) which increases the volume of the vein which means transport of nutrients and waste in the blood will increase.  Movement is life, so moving the fluids is important for the health of the surrounding and affected cells.  Also, moving fluids toward the heart increases waste production, since the kidneys are in line to the return blood flow to the heart – needing to urinate after a bodywork session is a normal and healthy response to the work you just received.

Another aspect of blood circulation that is an important feature of healthy, comfortable, and safe bodywork is the direction of the stroke.  Since veins occur mostly toward the most-surface areas of the body, they are the most directly affected structures during a massage.  Although the direction of energy strokes is dependent on the theory in use, tissue-manipulative strokes are most effectively and safely delivered when applied toward the heart.

The reason for this is that veins have structures inside that prevent backflow of blood and fluid.  The heart is not able to effectively assist the blood return through the veins, just the blood delivery through the arteries, which is strongest at the point of origin – the pumping heart muscle.  In blood return to the heart, the body is designed to assist through contraction of muscle surrounding the veins to move the blood back toward the heart and lungs for recirculation.

Another function of and safety mechanism for preventing the back flow of blood (especially during sedentary states) is the pockets or valves on the interior of the veins.  If pressure is applied in the direction of backflow (against the direction of flow), the structure of the pockets and valves is compromised and the veins stretch and strain under the pressure.  If there is too much stress on the vein in one application or over time, damage can occur to the vein, causing it to weaken or break.  Varicosities can occur or, at worst, bruising of the area where the vein was compromised.

As we get older, the elastin is depleted and not easily replaced in our entire body.  Veins are an important place to have elastin, as they expand and contract based on our environment and state of physical exertion and health.  If undue pressure is applied in the opposite direction of blood flow, permanent damage can be caused by which it becomes more difficult to recover.

massageface01110x110What’s most important is that you feel good during and after your massage.  The old adage “If it feels good, do it” is most applicable when considering the direction of the massage stroke you are receiving.  If it is irritating or annoying, there is a reason it feels that way – talk to your therapist and ask why you may be experiencing that feeling or sensation.  Trust your body to tell you what is good for it – safe, effective massage “feels good.”  The circulatory system plays a major role in how you feel during or after your massage, so make it an important goal, whether it’s to invigorate or relax it, for your overall health and well-being.

In the next article, we’ll talk about another circulatory system that is affected by bodywork and massage – the lymphatic system.  We’ll see how edema, lymph nodes, and the liver, kidneys, and your tonsils all play a part in the physical response and benefits of receiving bodywork!

To Deep…or Not Too Deep? Bodies on the Table Series

Massage is a great way to relieve stress, deepornot01588x400get all the toxins out, and just feel centered and relaxed in general. But there is a science to what your bodyworker is doing and how your body responds while you are zoning out to the tunes of nature on the beach and breathing deeply before you sink into that half-conscious Zen state after your session has started. Let’s find out what happens to your body while you are getting bodywork!
In this series of articles, we’ll talk about the physical responses of your body when you are receiving bodywork. We’ll address many aspects of what is happening in your body that gives you that “I feel like Jell-o” sensation when you get off the table or floor!
In this article, let’s talk about the depth of the stroke of a massage therapist. There are many preferences for the pressure that you may ask for in your massage. Some like a relaxing massage that incorporates flowing, rhythmic, or fluid strokes that are felt all over the body. Some like an invigorating massage that stimulates, encourages an increased circulation, or really addresses the “knots” you’ve been battling with for quite sometime or just recently. No matter your preference, your therapist is considering your physical response to the application of each stroke throughout the session.
Massage carries the connotation and characteristics of a good stretching workout. Your therapist manipulates your muscle tissue and fascia ultimately lengthening the fibers. They press, increasing the distance between the attachments of your muscles. This pressing, or lengthening, of the muscle resets the areas of muscle and tissue where chronic or acute shortness occurs. It also releases toxins into the surrounding space in between the muscle cells and tissues in your body.
The pressure by which your muscle and tissue is lengthened can cause micro-tears and damage to the cells, even in healthy tissue. Sometimes you may feel sore after a massage. There are several reasons you may feel this; one reason may be that your muscles are repairing themselves from the micro-tears that have been sustained from a firm massage or stretching session.
deepornot02588x400Part of the way your therapist detects how hard to press or squeeze is by your verbal communication indicating “That’s a little too much pressure” or “You can go harder, if you want.” The other way your therapist knows how much pressure to apply is by the holding or contraction of the muscle (or surrounding musculature) that is being addressed with the stroke. If your muscle tightens or you tighten up throughout the area, this is your body’s way of protecting itself from the micro- or macro-scopic damage that could be easily caused by “too much” pressure. Bruising may even occur, although rare, and only in cases where your physical condition is more prone to bruising, even in a specific area of the body.
There are many ways to recognize the best pressure for your body.

    1. If it is your first massage, let your therapist determine the depth of the stroke by applying the stroke in every area of the massage: notice the areas in which you may want more or less pressure in the future.
    2. If you have just completed and athletic event, it is always best to receive a more relaxing technique of massage in order not to damage the muscles further and to allow the muscle to recover and repair without inhibition.
    3. The amount of muscle or tissue you have is not always directly proportional to the amount of pressure you “need;” pressure preferences can range from little muscle needs a lot of pressure to much muscle needs a little pressure.
    4. Depending on your experience and habit of receiving bodywork, you may graduate into a deeper pressure the more you receive massage; if you get massage weekly, it is safe to have deeper pressure as your cells will be used to and will recognize the power of a deeper massage, especially on the deep layers of muscle that are hard to get to or have not been addressed yet.

In any case, always give verbal feedback if the pressure is too much or too little for your taste, but ultimately trust the therapist to “know when to say when” in order to avoid macro-scopic damage or other negative physical responses based on your health condition at the time of your session.
With regular massage (and stretching) your body soon comes to realize that longer muscles are more efficient and work better and are in less pain more often. The cells in your tendons that detect the length of a muscle are able to pay less attention to the shortness of the muscle and spend more time on kicking back and enjoying the massage!

Hot Stone 101

A common menu item for most spas today, hot stone therapy has its roots in many cultures throughout the ages.  Used for over 2500 years for therapeutic purposes, many types of organic stone have been used to treat areas of the human body for various conditions including sore muscles, poor circulation, and curing acute edematous conditions.

The most common type and source for hot stone massage stones is a La Paz mix of basalt stones from the beaches of Mexico to provide the heated and grounding nature of a Hot Stone Massage treatment.  The therapy incorporates the use of the heat and weight of the stones with the classic Swedish technique to provide a lulling, relaxing stimulation of the two main circulatory systems in the body: the capillary blood vessel and lymphatic systems.

Using long, flowing strokes and pressure that creates a wave-like movement toward the center of the body, the bodyworker will encourage dilation of the blood vessels, including capillaries, and detoxification of individual groups of muscle cells, increasing metabolism of the cells’ waste products and diffusion into the catch-all lymphatic and blood vessel systems.

This process is one that occurs over a suggested 80-minute protocol, addressing every area of the body, including some energetic aspects, like the heart chakra and Hara.  The placement of the Hara stone directly over the abdomen encourages stimulation of the energy stored there, thereby drawing energy in or dissipating excess energy, eventually balancing the Hara, a main source of life-energy.

Each stone has a purpose – a place – that is directly related to its size.  The larger areas of the body use larger stones.  The toe stones are very small and used between the toes and address those reflex areas.  The shape of the stone has a lot to do with its utility:  longer, thinner stones are used for specific work, while rounder, thicker stones are used for long-term placement on larger areas of the body.

In the end, the symphony of heat, pressure, and motion, induces a clarifying and subduing environment for the body that results in a physically detoxifying and spiritually grounding massage.