I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue over 2 years ago. I came for a massage because a friend recommended it. It took me 2 sessions to get used to the experience and I am still coming for massages more than a year later. On a practical level it helps me sleep better, eases my head and seems to help my muscles relax. Julie is very good at adjusting the session depending on where my CFS/M.E. is any given week. Although there are these positive physical benefits one other important benefit for me is to experience my body as a place of relaxed, pleasant sensations and to enjoy this aspect of my self-care. This has helped me so much. For years all my experience of my body has been one of discomfort, pain and distress.
So says Alison, a client of mine with M.E. There are many anecdotal accounts suggesting people with M.E. can benefit from regular holistic massage and I’d like to explore why this might be the case. As there is no definitive explanation for the causes of M.E, I’d like to focus on what we know about holistic massage and how this might help M.E. sufferers.
When you think of massage a picture of sportsmen having their muscles manipulated might spring to mind. This type of massage is necessary because muscles that have hardened due to overuse are less efficient at making the minute squeezing movements required to remove waste and circulate blood. This is also true of muscles that have hardened due to stress or lack of use. It’s been shown that massage can soften these tight muscles leaving them in a more relaxed state and therefore improving the blood and lymph flow. In addition to tight muscles, if your condition means you can't exercise, then your joints might also be affected. Without exercise the production of synovial fluid, which helps lubricate joints, is decreased, leading to painful movement. One type of massage, known as passive joint mobilisation, can help this by gently moving the joints and increasing the production of synovial fluid, without the expenditure of energy that normal exertion requires. If you feel your muscles ache from constantly being held tightly or your joints ache from under use then massage might help you.
Chronic stress might be the reason muscles feel tight and painful, but stress can also have other effects on the body. Chronic stress is caused when your body responds to internal or external stressors by activating its sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response. When our bodies remain in a stressed state for a prolonged period of time not only do our muscles forget how to relax but our digestion can be disrupted and our immune system weakened. This is because activity in both these systems is reduced when we're in fight or flight mode. Once the immune system is no longer firing on all cylinders then we lose our ability to fight off illness. If this sounds familiar to you it may be because many M.E. sufferers often seem to experience a period of chronic stress before coming down with M.E. A recent summary of M.E. research by Charlotte Stephens for the M.E. Association suggests that people with M.E. have a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system (2018). Massage has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system and sometimes called the rest and digest response. If the sensation of touch is perceived as relaxing to you then gentle massage can trigger a lowering of heart rate, a slowing of breathing, increased digestive activity and a return of immune response activity.
Finally, gentle massage can disrupt our pain network. There are two nerve pathways inside our spinal cord, one responds quickly to more superficial pressure and the other responds more slowly to deeper pressure and pain. Sensations created by light massage will reach the brain more quickly than sensations of deep-seated pain. This means that during the massage these pleasanter sensations can inhibit the awareness of deep-seated pain.
Massage can relax tight muscles, relieve feelings of chronic stress and displace the awareness of pain. If these sound like positive responses to symptoms you suffer from then I suggest you give massage a try. Look for a holistic massage therapist with a Massage Training Institute qualification with whom you feel you can build a trusting relationship and expect it to take a couple of sessions to build the trust and dialogue necessary to reach optimum results. Alison, at the beginning of the article, felt an immediate benefit from massage in terms of relaxed muscles and a better night's sleep, but she also added that it was from her third massage onward that these benefits increased, and in her words, “Now when I get on the table my body relaxes immediately. It’s such a positive response.”