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!