Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Healing Power of Massage

Back Pains?  Neck Pains?  Aches in Muscles and Joints?  Massage can be more effective, cheaper and better for you than pills or surgery - but ask your Doctor first.

Massage is very under-rated and under-utilized in the United States.  Part of the problem lies in our Puritan roots, where we cannot even talk about things like massage, or nude bathing, for that matter, without collapsing into a fit of giggles.  Our friends overseas seem to have less of a problem with that.  Perhaps they are more mature and grown-up, whereas our country is populated with mostly adult children.

So, go ahead, get it out of the way.  Tell all your jokes about oriental massage girls and "happy endings."  Just let me know when you're done.  I'll wait.  Done yet?  No?  Now?  OK, feel better now?  Let's get serious.  You see, despite what you read about on those billboards that say "Truckers Welcome", massage therapy is a very serious business and one that can really help you as you get older and more infirm.

And unfortunately the second bad stereotype about massages is that it is part of a "spa treatment" for ladies, who have cucumber slices put in their eyes and mud packs on their faces.   Hot stones on their spines and a relaxing afternoon with girl talk.  Tee-Hee.

So, in the United States, Massage has this reputation as either a covert sexual thing for men, or some sort of girly activity for women.  But in neither case are the healing powers of massage emphasized.  And this is sad, as it can be such a powerful means of healing.

As I noted in 50-Something Growing Pains, by the time you hit the mid-century mark, your body will have more than a few miles on it, and some parts may start to wear out, if not in fact, fall off.  And things like compressed discs and whatnot are the norm, not the exception.

And you should go see a doctor, to be sure.   And they will do a $1500 MRI or whatever, which your insurance won't cover (or will partially cover, or your rates will skyrocket, or both) and tell you that you have a compressed disc or something and they really can't do much about it, unless the problem is really serious.

If you have a crappy doctor, he might recommend surgery anyway, and I've seen this backfire in a big way.  The words "botched surgery" come to mind.  Before you go under the knife, make sure you have explored all alternatives.

If your doctor is crappy but not a surgeon, he might recommend pain killers, and you'll find yourself on a one-way trip to the Rush Limbaugh Center for Pain-Killer Re-Hab.  But along the way, you can sell some of your Oxycontin on the street for a tidy profit.

Pill Doctors write scrips.   Knife Doctors say to cut.  When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.

Now, I am not down on doctors - there are good ones and bad ones.   But they are not Gods, and the only tools they really have in their black bag are a knife and a bottle of pills - at least when it comes to things like a pinched nerve or disc.  See a doctor - but be skeptical and get a second opinion, if necessary (you do that with your car, right? why not your doctor?) and ask about alternative treatment options.

A good Doctor might make some other recommendations - if they are appropriate for your condition.   For example, if you are carrying around a 60 lb. bag of concrete, known as a "belly", you might want to look into losing that.   It is amazing, but when you aren't carrying that around, your spine is in a lot less pain!   And they might recommend that you investigate massage therapy.

Mark has a compressed disc in his back.   They tried to inject something into his spine and that went horribly wrong (migraine headaches, as his spinal fluid leaked out.  A "blood patch" cured the problem, others are not so lucky).  Surgery was not in the cards - not after our neighbor's experience (excruciating pain for a lifetime, with drug addiction throw in).  And we turned down the kind Doctor's offer for a scrip for Codine or Oxycontin (which seemed to be a big chunk of his practice).

A different doctor recommended a deep muscle massage.  And it has made all the difference in the world.  I have a compressed vertebra in my neck, and since I've been getting regular massages, I feel much better and never have "stiff neck" attacks anymore.

Now, I am not a big fan of "touchy feely" kind of crap, and was very skeptical about massage as a means of healing.   But it does work, and when you get one, you realize how contorted and stiff your body is (and gets) and how the muscles get all hard and out of whack.  A good massage leaves you feeling a bit like you've been in a car wreck the next day.   But the day after that, well, your body feels rejuvenated.

Finding a good massage therapist can be problematic.   As I noted before, "massage parlors" have the reputation as places for sexual encounters, while "day spas" have the reputation as merely places for personal indulgence.  A really good, vigorous, deep muscle massage is not what you will get at either place.

We were fortunate to find a good massage therapist in New York, who gives a massage that is intense and deep.   Unfortunately, the further South you go, the harder it is to find serious massage therapists, as in the deep South, massage is still viewed as either the slap-and-tickle or as girly time.  But if you are having muscle or joint pains, it pays to at least try a massage therapist.

Look for one with extensive training, who is willing to listen to your problems and understand what you are looking for.   I would avoid spas and health clubs, unless you are traveling, as most have a retinue of therapists of varying levels of expertise and you may never have the same person twice.  Many better massage therapists will travel, and thus you have have a massage in the convenience of your own home - often for less than what is charged at a health club or spa.

We talk a lot about the "health care crises" in America.  But a big part of this crises is the mentality of patients these days.   Everyone wants to go to the doctor and get a quick fix - in the form of a pill or surgery.  Few are willing to admit that many of their problems may be self-inflicted and the answer doesn't necessarily lie in a pill bottle or at the end of a knife.

And no, in most cases, your insurance won't cover the cost of massage therapy - but it never hurts to ask.  Of course, if they do cover it, expect your rates to go up - nothing in life is free.

But to me, freedom from pain is well worth a few dollars for a massage every other week or so.

Patient, heal thyself!