Changing Your Brain's Mind: Using Massage and Bodywork to Treat Pain
Every day, for years, you take the same route home. (Stick with me here!) This route you follow happens to be a bit circuitous and a little arduous, but you traverse it mainly because you always - or what feels like always - have. One day a detour pops up which forces you to take an unconventional path home; a more direct, easier way! A few days later, after the detour is gone and you are no longer thinking about which way you are going, which route are you going to take home? Logically, it makes sense that we would take the shorter road. But for most of us, routine and familiarity will unconsciously dictate where we go and we will choose the path we have traveled for years over the one we discovered more recently, even if the new one is objectively better.
This is is analogous to how our brains create our posture and movement patterns. Once we learn a pattern it becomes our “normal” and we consistently return back to it; even if it is inefficient and dysfunctional or cause us discomfort and pain. To explain why we return to these patterns, it is necessary to look at the causes of pain. Acute pain is your body calling for attention to a compromised or injured area. Chronic pain can also be a response to an injury that is present or, sometimes, the threat is one the brain only thinks exists - a hyped up, overprotective reaction to a past disaster. Both chronic and acute pain can be born of patterns of movement and guarding that are built up in response to areas weakened by over- and improper use during repetitive daily activities. Pain usually results when these compensations are no longer enough to sustain function. Despite any pain we might feel, our bodies will sometimes continue to hold these patterns, normalizing them, because we have sustained them for an extended period of time (days, weeks, months, or more). It is as if our brains get stuck, unable to revert back to previous ways of moving because it has convinced itself that it must remain in the new, guarded state. It’s a strange cycle we do not yet fully understand.
Enter massage! Bodywork, in all of its forms, acts as a detour directing our brains to choose the easier, more healthful movements.
Because the brain was not able to return the body to its movements before injury after the crisis past, the goal must become creating a new normal, one which allows for healing and overwrites the patterns that cause pain. However, as we mentioned before, familiarity equates to normalcy so the mind tends to bring the body back toward the known patterns even after a more efficient one has been introduced. Achieving this new state then requires intervention that shortens the time the body has to return to its old, painful patterns. In other words, we need a continued detour signaling to take the shorter route home.
What this means for massage is that sessions must be closer together at the start of treatment to maintain the changes of the initial intervention. As time goes on and your brain adopts the new patterns, the session frequency can decrease until you no longer need the massage to live pain free or can choose to return only for maintenance. Ultimately, bodywork’s intention is to raise your self awareness and provide you with enough tools (ones that you actually employ) to prevent the creation of painful patterns in the first place.
How long a person participates in a massage protocol is entirely up to the individual, just as the recommendation for the massage protocol is individual to the person’s needs and particular structural adaptability. What has been your experience with using massage to treat pain? What new postural or movement patterns have you achieved with bodywork? Let me know in the comments below!