Massage and Trauma

Along our life path, we are all occasionally blighted with traumatic events: loss of a loved one, illness, assault, surgery, natural disasters, financial difficulties, and many other situations can trigger emotional reactions that impact beyond the actual event itself. About 20% of people who experience a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, with many others experiencing other, less extreme, symptoms of distress linked to an event.

Symptoms of this disorder can be flashbacks, anxiety attacks, loss of interest in life, withdrawal, immune system disorders and substance abuse. When thinking about the event, people with PTSD physically experience it as if it were happening at that moment. Their sympathetic nervous system is triggered to allow for fight or flight responses: e.g. adrenaline is released, heart rate and blood pressure increases, there is an increase in blood flow to the muscles, etc. There are a number of therapeutic outlets that can be utilised to help the client get through this difficult period, including psychotherapy, medication, and touch therapies. Let me re-count a story I once had to illustrate my point.

Sharon (not her real name) booked in for a massage at a clinic I used to work in, years ago. She wanted a nice, relaxing treatment as she was on holiday and didn't want to be manipulated into something resembling a pretzal. During treatment, she started crying. I asked if she'd like me to stop, and she said no. What we did instead was I continued the massage while she poured her heart out about the death of her brother-in-law. It seems that he was in a car accident months ago, and had died as a result. Between making the arrangement for her funeral, and wanting to look strong for her husband, she hadn't really had a chance to grieve. She talked about the loss of her brother-in-law while I continued with the session, trying to be responsive and understanding. It seemed to help: While she seemed tense on arrival, afterwards her muscles were noticeably relaxed and pliant. She looked relieved. Sharon thanked me for the treatment and went on her way, looked much freer in her movements and calmer in her countenance. This was my first experience with a client with a post-trauma emotional response, and it would not be the last. I came to notice that the combination of sensitive, caring touch and the free-flow of thoughts seemed to help the client relax and unwind. I'm sure that the fact that I don't expect clients to look me in the eye and explain themselves has something to do about it, too.

There has been some research conducted on the effectiveness of touch therapies on PTSD: including the effectiveness of massage therapy on women who have experienced sexual abuse, on sufferers of PTSD as a result of childhood abuse, and and a study on the reduction of PTSD symptoms in children effected by Hurricane Katrina. Each study showed diminished signs of trauma after the treatment was administered. There's even courses massage therapists and other complementary therapists can do to learn counseling skills to incorporate into their practice, such as this pioneering course at the Colorado School of Healing Arts. It's just one more sign that looking at the whole person during treatment is gaining traction in the manual therapy and medical fraternities. There is also a fantastic article here about dealing with PTSD through touch.