Most of us have heard of massage, reflexology, and physical therapy, but not therapeutic methods such Cranial-sacral and Structural therapy. Massage comes in many different styles – Swedish, Sports, and Thai massage – and lesser-known systems like neuromuscular massage and Tui Na. Chiropractors generally work with the spine and joints, but not muscles or soft tissue. They do very specific adjustments of joints using quick forced movements. Osteopaths also do adjustments, but they work on other parts of the body and soft tissue, and tend to use gentler, repetitive movements. Sometimes practitioners mix different approaches. I use the term “bodywork” as a generic term encompassing the different approaches. Different forms of bodywork have proliferated over the past three decades, and can be confusing. I’ll try to bring some order and understanding to this landscape.
All forms of bodywork involve some degree of touch and manual manipulation. Each form of bodywork has its own particular goals and works with the body differently. As a health consumer, you should know the differences and your goals before choosing one.
You can understand bodywork through these four categories: Relaxation, Fixing, Management and Transformation. We intuitively know the positive effects of touch – it’s a biological and social need. Touch and hands-on work in the right hands can be a powerful healing tool. It can relax muscular tension, relieve pain and positively impact your whole being. Infants need it for bonding, emotional growth and brain development. Science has discovered many of the physiological mechanisms involved in touch-chemistry and relaxation-response, and how body interfaces with mind. Our skin, the largest organ in the body, acts as a receptor. The underlying myofascia tissue completely interconnects the whole body. Pressure-receptors under the skin send signals to the brain and Vagus nerve, which has branches throughout the body including to the heart. Touch decreases the stress-released hormone Cortisol, and increases the neuropeptide, Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the biological foundation of connecting. When released, it creates a felt-sense of trust and connectedness, and facilitates communication and bonding. It causes heart rate to slow down as the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system balances, making you feel calm and relaxed. Once the nervous system balances, the whole body responds and sets the stage for physical and emotional healing.
Hands-on-work can also heal trauma, pain and functional disorders. Physicians often recommend MRI and ultrasound imaging to discover physical disorders, but this does not always correlate to cause. You can be given a medical diagnosis of tendinitis, bursitis or a bulging disc, but not know where the symptoms originate. Specialists who find a problem in the image, and have a positive clinical test, may still refer you for unnecessary surgery. Tissue damage doesn’t correlate with imaging and symptoms origins. A torn ligament or muscle tear can, in many cases, be treated with the right bodywork and exercise. Conventional medicine usually doesn’t consider bodywork or if it does, which methods to recommend.
People seek out bodywork for various reasons. Some approaches only work locally. Others, like structural bodywork look at problems from a global perspective. The first two categories, relaxation and fixing, are the most commonly used approaches. The “relaxation” approach can be used to “feel better” without addressing any symptoms, or as an adjunct to other therapies. Relaxation itself can facilitate healing because its positive impact on the nervous system and brain, promoting the body to self-correct. “Fixing” is what conventional medicine and popular forms of bodywork do. They identify a problem, take actions to deal with the symptoms, but a diagnosis may or may not be given. In conventional medicine, medication or surgery is used; bodywork takes a hands-on approach.
Next issue, in part 2 I will continue our exploration of the four categories of bodywork.