As the stylist ran her fingers through my hair, I closed my eyes and focused on the light tickling sensation on my scalp. When she washed my hair, the circular motion of her thumbs pressing behind my ears made me relax in a way that I hadn't been able to do for months. As I left the salon, I noticed a sense of optimism creeping in between the gray moods.
That haircut was a revelation about the power of touch. But the idea of using touchóby someone who is neither parent nor loveróas a way to stay happy and healthy traditionally has not been accepted in mainstream America. Psychologist Sidney Jourard monitored casual touch among couples in cafÈs throughout the world and found that U.S. couples scored among the lowest, touching only twice per hour, while Puerto Rican couples touched 180(!) times. French parents and children touch one another three times more frequently than their American counterparts, which could have important societal consequences. Current research suggests children who are touched often are less violent as adolescents and adults.
Fortunately, American touchiness about touch is changing. As Ashley Montagu writes in his landmark book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (Harper & Row), 'The communications we transmit through touch constitute the most powerful means of establishing human relationships, the foundation of experience.' Now that more and more scientific research is emerging about the emotional and physical benefits of massage therapy, 25 million Americans are making 60 million visits a year to bodywork practitioners. Consider these findings:
* Researchers at Miami's Touch Research Institute (TRI) found that premature infants who received three massages a day over 10 days gained 47 percent more weight than preemies who weren't massaged. According to Family Therapy Networker (Nov./Dec. 1997), TRI has also documented massage's benefits in treating everything from colic and bulimia to chronic fatigue syndrome and back pain. Massage also raises immune-system cell levels in people who are HIV-positive.
* According to Intuition (Nov./Dec. 1997), elderly people who receive massages 'exhibit less depression and less loneliness, make more social phone calls, visit the doctor less often, and drink less coffee than their counterparts who have no tactile stimulation. Nursing-home patients who get massages frequently display fewer signs of senility, and agitation decreases in Alzheimer's patients who are massaged.'
* Preliminary results of a University of South Carolina study found that women who had experienced the recent death of a child were less depressed after receiving therapeutic massage. In Natural Health (July/Aug. 1997), TRI's director, Tiffany Field, said that besides countering isolation, massage relaxes depressed people, slowing their physiological processes, reducing stress hormones, and making them feel better.
* Minnesota's Starkey Laboratories, the world's largest custom hearing-aid manufacturer, decreased its $1.3 million workers' compensation costs for repetitive stress injuries by 88 percent after offering employees Rolfing structural integration, an intensive form of massage that works with the connective tissues surrounding muscles. Starkey employs a 'certified Rolfer' who spends two half-days each week at the company. It isn't mandatory, but approximately 200 of the 2,400 employees get Rolfed. Two side effects: Absenteeism is down and productivity is up.Touch therapy is already beginning to make inroads into the clinical health paradigm, much as diet and exercise have. Massage is returning to nursing, according to Massage Magazine (Sept./Oct. 1997), and hospitals are realizing that massage helps patients recover faster, which 'saves medical institutions money and fulfills nurses by allowing them to provide more complete caregiving.'
Although America is the only developed country where massage isn't an official part of the health care system (in Germany and the former Soviet Union, every major hospital has a massage therapy department), more insurance programsóincluding Oxford Health Plans on the East Coast and Kaiser Permanente in Californiaócover massage therapy. With some policies, physicians may prescribe massages as they would physical therapy. (Massage is not recommended for people with circulatory ailments such as phlebitis and thrombosis, high fevers, infectious diseases, cardiac problems, or certain skin conditions, and it may aggravate a recent sprain or fracture.)
So how do you find a massage therapist? First identify your primary problem, then match it to the appropriate technique. If you have jaw problems, try craniosacral therapy, which focuses on the membranes, fluid, and bones that support the skull and spinal column (and also lessens depression). Therapists use gentle (we're talking almost nonexistent) pressure to reduce tension and counteract any physical trauma in this area.
If your range of motion is impaired by a stroke or accident, Feldenkrais focuses on increasing flexibility through gentle massage and exercise. Another technique helpful in relieving pain from surgery, trauma, repetitive stress, or postural imbalance is myofascial release, which restores connective tissue mobility with slow, focused stretchingóup to five minutes for a single stretch.
For repetitive stress injuries, backaches, headaches, and joint pain, Rolfing often works. Traditional Rolfing can be quite intense, but new techniques make it more accessible to those who don't like to pay for pain. Its offshoots include Hellerwork, which adds a mental and movement re-education aspect, and Aston-Patterning, which teaches people how to maintain their Rolfing alignment.
Looking for a more spiritual journey? Zero Balancing integrates Western science with Eastern views of energy, using energy to work with body structure, while Thai massage, a form of passive yoga, combines gentle rocking, range of motion, acupressure, reflexology, energy work, and stretching.
All these techniques, plus the more common Swedish and deep tissue methods, decrease stress and provide relaxation. But for a massage to be successful, trusting the practitioner is crucial. The American Massage Therapy Association suggests asking friends or a health care provider for referrals. Then ask what services therapists offer, inquire about their training, certification, and fees (nationally, they range from $35 to $65 an hour), and request references. Be sure to discuss your apprehensions and concerns before and during the session. It's your responsibility to provide accurate health information and report discomfort, either from the massage itself or from that horrid glockenspiel-and-harp Muzak some studios pump through their air vents.
Personality fit is important, so if someone, uh, rubs you the wrong way, listen to your gut and find a different practitioner.