Most people consider massage to be a feel-good reward (and it is!), but a buildup of research now shows that “getting the kinks out” can be a terrific addition if you’re making a conscious effort toward a healthier lifestyle.
Moderate-pressure massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary activity like heart rate and digestion, and may help lower blood pressure while raising feel-good hormones and immune function. Meanwhile, small preliminary studies have shown that massage may be helpful therapy for an eclectic list of health conditions: arthritis of the knee, headaches, constipation, carpal tunnel syndrome, restless leg syndrome, and it may even aid stroke recovery. Massage can provide pain relief in cancer patients, and may be better than ibuprofen for an achy back.
Think of it this way: How else can you feel utterly pampered while potentially improving your health? Here are some of the most popular and widely available massage types, and the everyday situations each is best at treating.
When you feel: Stressed or physically worn down.
This is the classic style you’ll find everywhere, characterized by connected, flowing strokes and, sometimes, tapping or pounding, all designed to boost circulation (and feel like a physical lullaby). Research from the Cedars-Sinai Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences found that Swedish massage may increase white blood cell count and decrease cortisol and vasopressin, hormones related to stress. Hot stones are popular tools therapists can use instead of their hands while doing Swedish.
When you feel: Fatigued or have sore muscles.
Originally from Japan, shiatsu translates as “finger pressure,” and involves targeted massage on points along the body’s meridians, which—as in acupuncture—are the channels through which chi, or energy, is thought to flow. Shiatsu practitioners usually follow a specific protocol while working along the body, removing “energy blockages” at key points. While the Western scientific jury is still out on chi, shiatsu has been associated with improving stress symptoms, low energy, and muscular problems. It’s also convenient: You stay clothed during shiatsu, and there
is no oil involved.
When you feel: Muscle and joint tightness.
Sometimes called Thai yoga massage, this technique involves acupressure, kneading-type massage, and assisted stretching. The practitioner has you lie on a mat, fully clothed, and kneels over you, sometimes bending you into yoga-like postures. Be prepared for this pressure to go deep, as the practitioners sometimes use their feet to work your muscles. The rocking, kneading, and stretching involved with Thai massage help muscles relax and loosen.
When you feel: Sore or tight from physical activity, or you want to improve mobility.
Try: Myofascial Release
Muscles are covered in a connective tissue called fascia that can become very tight, sometimes to the point of causing pain. Relieving that tension improves your mobility. Myofascial release is a slow type of massage characterized by deep, cross-fiber strokes and stretching. It’s usually focused on a specific area, like your back or shoulders, to help break up knots and loosen the fascia.
When you feel: Pain radiating from one spot.
Try: Trigger Point
Tight muscles can squeeze nerves and cause pain that radiates to other areas. For example, your headache may actually be caused by muscle spasms in your neck. Trigger point massage features deep, targeted friction across small sections of muscle that can cause pain in wider areas. Massage therapists will often keep pressure on a trigger point until it “releases.” These spots can have knots, and sometimes you may not know they’re there until a therapist touches them. And then, boy,
do you feel ’em!
Massage Yourself (for less than $20!)
These DIY tools let you work your problem spots on the cheap.
Foam roller: A few minutes rolling your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back each night while watching TV can do wonders.
Tennis ball: Perfectly portable. Excellent for the bottoms of your feet, but useful for any muscle.
Massage stick: Far more stylish than a foam roller, but just as effective. Keep one in your drawer at the office.