The Many Benefits and Types of Clinical Massage Therapy
Updated: Jul 12, 2019
Have you ever experienced a sports injury, muscle strain, low back pain, tension headache or knee pain? The resounding and most likely unanimous answer to this basic question is, yes! And if for some amazing stroke of luck or extremely high superhuman level of pain tolerance you haven't, then you undoubtedly know others who have.
One of the most effective treatment options for many muscle, ligament and joint injuries is some variation and combination of clinical massage therapy. As a substitute for or complement to traditional treatments such as medications, injections and surgery, manual therapies can be of great help in preventing and recovering from a wide range of sports injuries and pain, including:
Low Back Pain
Carpel Tunnel Syndrome
Tendonitis / Tendonopathy
The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Massage Therapy
Massage therapy is a great way to support many aspects of one’s physical and mental health. On a physical level massage therapy can significantly enhance athletic performance and fitness training goals as well as prevent injuries and assist in the post-injury rehabilitation process. It does these things primarily by increasing circulation to muscles and breaking up scar tissue, muscle adhesions and trigger points which help to improve joint mechanics, muscle function and flexibility.
Massage therapy in its many forms is also an effective way to help one to live a healthy lifestyle, create an overall sense of wellness in the body, manage stress and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. By helping to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, quiet the mind, reduce pain and increase body awareness massage therapy is a great way to help one to maintain and find emotional and mental balance.
This is probably what comes to mind when most people think about or hear the word “massage.” A set of techniques designed to treat muscles and other soft tissue in the body, Swedish is your basic Western-style massage in which the therapist uses oil or cream. It is great for relaxation, it feels good, improves blood circulation, and relieves muscle tension. Swedish massage strokes are long, broad and fluid movements that help give a full body connection throughout a treatment.
Reiki, Reflexology, Polarity, Shiatsu, Craniosacral and Qi Gong just to name a few. There are many hands-on modalities that approach healing through a energy meridians or energy pockets known as chakras. These techniques are often based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayuruveda from India and some even Western medicine. While they are gentle treatments in that no aggressive physical pressure or manipulation is applied, the affects and benefits can be profound, especially for stress, mental health and energy.
Clinical Massage Therapy
Clinical Massage Therapy is a general term often used interchangeably with other terms such as medical massage, sports massage, manual therapy, deep tissue massage and a myriad of other specific modalities. It's important to consider that there isn't one singular definition, categorization or classification system when it comes to clinical massage therapy and massage therapy as a whole.
There are so many manual-based treatment modalities that practitioners use for such a wide variety of health needs. A particular modality may provide therapeutic and clinical support to one person in a way that a different recipient or therapist can't fully understand, appreciate or acknowledge as 'clinical' or 'medical' due to bias and experience. I have encountered resistance in the past for labeling clinical massage therapy as anything that is purely physical, orthopedic or biomechanics-oriented.
For example, massage as a complementary part of cancer treatment is a clinical treatment in nature. It may not be orthopedic, meaning it may not focus on a particular injury or area of pain but rather the person as a whole. But if that treatment has a healing and therapeutic impact on a person with cancer, allowing that patient to experience less overall pain and stress, then by definition that is a clinical treatment.
With that said, massage for oncology patients is not what I mean when I use the term 'clinical massage'. Neither are energetic modalities such as Reiki or Craniosacral Therapy which may reduce pain and provide overall harmony in the body via the parasympathetic nervous system or Chinese meridian pathways. And neither is Swedish massage done in a spa with dim lighting, painfully bad new age music and essential oils, even though it can provide much-needed emotional support and even help lower blood pressure.
My definition of clinical massage for the purposes of the rest of this article is specific to manual therapies that address the musculoskeletal system in particular, which includes muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, hones, facia and nerves.
Clinical Massage Vs Medical Massage
People often ask me what the difference is between clinical massage and medical massage to which I respond by saying that the two terms are often used interchangeably with the primary difference being the setting. Medical massage refers to clinical massage that takes place in a medical office, clinic or facility ad since I see my clients in a private office, I do not use the term 'medical' to describe what I do even though my clinical techniques have medical implications. So for the most part clinical massage and medical massage are the same, in my opinion.
Sports Massage is a general term referring to the combination of a wide range of bodywork techniques specifically designed to enhance athletic performance and fitness training. These techniques may include compression, joint range of motion, active and passive stretching, Myofascial Release, Active Release Therapy and depending on the context, Swedish and deep tissue work as well as other modalities.
Pre-event sports massage is done the night before or on-site the day of a competition or event. The goal is to increase circulation to the muscles, stimulate the nervous system and prepare the participant. Post-event is done on-site shortly after or within a day after an event or competition. The goal is to relax and detoxify muscles, maintain and restore flexibility, speed up the body’s natural healing processes, reduce pain, and relax the participant.
Deep Tissue Massage
Deep Tissue Massage is a general term that refers to a range of massage techniques applied with deep pressure. It relieves chronic pain and patterns of muscle tension, separates muscle adhesions and breaks up scar tissue from old injuries. Deep tissue techniques may include trigger point therapy, Active Release Techniques, cross fiber friction and Swedish massage methods using deeper pressure.
Trigger Point Therapy addresses specific points of concentrated tension in tight muscles and connective tissue. These points can result from direct trauma, sustained muscular contraction, poor posture, sub-optimal biomechanics, cold weather conditions and emotional distress. Trigger points can contribute to chronic pain and tightness, further injury and a phenomenon known as referral pain.
Some trigger points are active, meaning they cause pain or discomfort that you are aware of. Others are latent, meaning that you probably are not aware of them until pressure is applied. My treatment method of choice is sustained/ischemic compression, which is simply applying very specific pressure at the correct angle to a trigger point and maintaining this pressure for 5-30 seconds.
A gentle blend of stretching and massage using no oil, myofascial release (often referred to simply as “myofascial”) is a slow, non-invasive technique that has a soft energetic quality to it. It generally feels good and it can be very effective in treating a wide range of musculoskeletal problems. Myofascial techniques are effective because they allow the therapist to engage and treat muscles and fascia on a different level than do techniques requiring oil or cream. Greater traction is achieved when not using oil – creating a “shearing” affect.
Active Release Techniques
Active Release, also commonly known as ART, Active Release Techniques and Active Release Therapy, is a clinical manual therapy specifically designed to treat muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, connective tissue and nerves. It is a movement-based manual therapy therapy that helps restore range of motion, break up scar tissue, release muscle adhesions, increase blood flow and reduce chronic and acute pain.
In my 14 years as a clinical massage therapist, Active Release Techniques has been a game-changer. It has enabled me to help my clients recover from injury faster and more sustainably, and at less cost, effort, time and frustration to my clients. While it can't fix every problem by itself, having a highly-skilled Active Release therapist can be a great asset to those dealing with serious injuries, preparing for a sporting event and those struggling to get rid of chronic and stubborn pain once and for all.
You can find an ART provider close to you by visiting the Active Release Techniques web site and going to their "Find a Provider" page. You may be surprised how close an ART specialist is to you!
Other Treatment Options for Orthopedic Issues
Since Clinical Massage Therapy is by no means your only treatment option for injuries and sports performance, how do you decide how to go about recovering from an injury and preventing it from returning? Where should you start? How long should you stick with one treatment strategy? Which treatments best complement each other?
For answers to these and other important questions, click here!