Do Touch

Years ago, when massages were called ‘rubdowns’ and masseuses
offered a decidedly shady brand of wellness, I found myself in a
seemingly endless state of the blahs. One day, after realizing that
I had, to put it mildly, let myself go, I scheduled a haircut
appointment.

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.

UTNE
UTNE
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