Four Common Myths About Massage

The 4 Myths of Massage

We live in an exciting age of information wherein anything we need to know is only a couple of clicks away; knowledge has never been more within our immediate grasp. There's only one problem: along with this easily accessible information comes an abundance of misinformation. This is perhaps most prevalent in the health and wellness industry and, more specifically, in the realm of massage therapy. Far-fetched claims are infinitely plentiful on the internet, everything from clearing bad energy to correcting poor posture.

So, I’ve decided to make a short list of some of the most popular myths surrounding this profession as follows:

1)    It has to hurt to be helpful. 

Nope. No truth to that statement. Although it’s not surprising this belief has permeated our culture. Therapists can become famous (or infamous) for the excruciating treatments they perform…sigh. 

Massage doesn’t work by pounding muscles into submission, it doesn’t work by stretching or deforming fascia, and more pressure does not equal a more therapeutic effect. So how does it work? We don’t really know exactly, but we do know a few things. Basically, your brain controls your thoughts, emotions, how you move, and your level of muscle tension. It also has an amazing capacity to either turn-up or dial-down the intensity of pain you experience. When you are touched, nerve endings are stimulated in the skin, messages are sent to the brain, and if the brain likes these messages good things can happen.

So, if massage is to be effective, it is through the successful engagement with the patient’s nervous system, i.e. brain. And since pain is like an alarm system to alert us to any potential threat, giving a painful treatment may keep that alarm ringing.
Protecting us from threat is a high priority for our nervous system and pain intensity can increase when we feel unsafe. Inflicting pain doesn’t usually make a person feel safe. A painful treatment can have the opposite effect of what is intended. A good massage may take you to the edge of pain, but hurt is unnecessary.

2)    It releases toxins, or detoxifies the body.

Detoxification - sounds good, doesn’t it? Sometimes it can feel like toxins have been released after a good massage. Maybe that’s why for decades this has been a prevalent belief in massage therapy culture. However, there is no research to suggest this happens. 

A plausible explanation on the mechanism of which these toxins are supposed to be eliminated eludes us. Are they squeezed out of muscle like water from a sponge? And what, exactly, is meant by toxin? There are some vague ideas out there. Some would say it refers to environmental substances like BPA (we all remember the great plastic water bottle scare of the late nineties). Others say toxins refer to metabolic waste such as lactic acid. Regarding the former, no amount of pushing on muscles will squeeze toxic chemicals into the bloodstream, this is not scientifically plausible. And as for lactic acid, there is research suggesting that massage might actually impede its elimination. Interesting article here.

You don’t need to worry about toxins accumulating anyway, our liver and kidneys take care of that.

3)    It breaks down scar tissue.

Ah, the ubiquitous scar tissue. It’s at the root of all mysterious pains. There are many who make this claim, and no shortage of techniques and instruments to break down this apparent scar tissue. And once it’s gone all pain will vanish and life will return to normal. What a neat and tidy story. Too bad it’s not true.

There is no evidence to suggest our bodies are riddled with scar tissue and no convincing story telling us how we would acquire it. Even if it were true, how do we know this causes pain? It doesn’t make sense; the scars on our skin caused by cuts and abrasions don’t usually hurt. Scar tissue is pretty fibrous stuff; it’s made strong to protect us from further injury. The only way to break down this stuff is with a very sharp instrument, i.e. scalpel.

If your therapist tells you he’s breaking down scar tissue, you can be sure he is more in tune with pseudoscience rather than science.

4)    A relaxation massage isn’t therapeutic.

Therapeutic: causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy

There is a negative connotation associated with relaxation massage; namely that it is only appropriate for spas and cruise ships, that it’s only purpose is to pamper the privileged. I frequently hear patients say, as if ashamed, that they are not seeing me for relaxation, for it is therapy they need, not relaxation. However, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Here are two definitions of therapeutic: 

From the Cambridge Dictionary- “causing someone to feel happier and more relaxed or to be more healthy”

And from the Oxford Dictionary- “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being”

It seems to me like the word, therapeutic, describes a relaxation massage perfectly. 
Why are people so down on relaxation? It can lead to many great things such as: improved sleep, more energy, increased concentration and a higher tolerance for annoying things in life, like pain. And let’s not forget about stress. Being more relaxed definitely enhances our ability to cope with stress. It would be ridiculous to suggest that relaxation has no therapeutic effects considering excessive stress is linked to almost all chronic diseases. 

It is clear relaxation is an important part of massage therapy, if not the most important part. 

In conclusion, I would advise looking at all claims about massage therapy with a skeptical mind. There is no such thing as a magic bullet in this industry, and if it seems too good to be true it probably is. Thankfully, massage doesn’t need grandiose claims. There is only one claim that matters: the general effects are plain to see; people feel better after massage.