Reaction vs. Aggravation

Reaction vs. Aggravation

Reaction is a positive phenomenon that must never be confused with aggravation. Massage therapy is a physical method of treatment and therefore, when applied inappropriately, can actually aggravate the pre-existing condition or can cause new trauma.

The human body reacts to massage therapy differently. The desired reaction reveals itself in any number of beneficial changes that adds up to the expression of a feeling of much better “wellness.” For example, before the treatment, a client needing orthopedic massage, reports the level of pain to be a 10, on a scale from 0 – 10. After the treatment he/she reports that the experienced pain is now at the level 8. In this case, the results are obvious. The reaction of the client to the treatment was visibly positive.

In another scenario a client comes to us complaining about chronic low-grade pain and limited range of motion in a region. After receiving a treatment he/she reports experiencing a much higher level of pain and stiffness.

In fact some patients might react to massage therapy in variety of unusual behavioral patterns such as experiencing a sensation of cold that could be accompanied by shaking, experiencing excessive excitement to the point of losing sleep after the first massage session, engaging in uncontrollable cry, laugh, etc. Due to the accelerated release of metabolic byproducts to the circulatory system, the next day after the first massage session a person can develop muscular pain all over the body.

All mentioned reactions should be viewed as positive phenomena even though it is not often that clients react this way. It is a duty of a massage therapist to explain the patient that these manifestations are very positive although rare. Statistics show that only 10% of clients react to massage therapy with the feeling of increased intensity of pain, stiffness etc. Patients need to be explained that such manifestations are evidence of positive changes and effectiveness of massage. Such patients should be advised to continue treatments and after two three treatments they will experience great improvement.

In both cases, we witness the reaction of the human body to massage therapy. My grandfather, who was an expert on physical rehabilitative medicine, used to say, “If the patient didn’t react to the treatment, in my opinion, the treatment wasn’t performed.” In other words, the client has to react to our treatment with the feeling of either improvement or worsening of the pre-existing clinical condition.

Reaction is a positive phenomenon that must never be confused with aggravation. Massage therapy is a physical method of treatment and therefore, when applied inappropriately, can actually aggravate the pre-existing condition or can cause new trauma.

For example:
1. Aggressive/vigorous massage therapy can cause trauma to the soft tissues resulting in myositis, development of trigger points, rib rotation or even fracture, facet joint subluxation, etc.
2. Please be aware of and try to avoid situations when the client may unknowingly re-injure his/herself after the treatment. For example, a client complains of stiffness and pain in the lower back region. The massage therapist performs protocols of massage therapy for the lower back region, the goals of which are to reduce tension in muscles and fascia, (to restore normal metabolism in soft tissue and to eliminate trigger points if they exist.) In a very successful outcome, the client can feel significant improvement and, sometimes, it is hard for him/her to believe that they got so much clinical improvement from one treatment. As a result they start moving fast trying to find if pain still exists; i.e. to “challenge” the improved range of motion. This kind of “innocent” testing can be extensive enough to re-strain and re-sprain the region. It is important to keep in mind that higher tonus of muscles and fascia over a prolonged period of time exhausts and weakens the anatomical structure of a region so that even innocent movement in increased range of motion could strain and/or sprain the region. (Strain is an overload, meaning that a person performed work that was too much on that particular region.)

As you know, strain/sprain (overload/pulling) results in trauma or in such a case re-injury. The client must be explained why they should not challenge the region with vigorous movement and full range of motion for a while. They should also be instructed to ease off their physical activities for the duration of receiving treatment even if clinically they feel improvement.

In cases of injuries, physical activities including therapeutic exercise programs have to be performed slowly, listening to the body and gradually increasing the amount of the activities. Usually in a frame of seven weeks, injured clients come back to normal physical activities with no limitation to the range of motion.
Another aggravating condition is to perform light prolonged massage therapy on clients who suffer from bronchial asthma and disorders of digestive system. It is well known that the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system of patients who suffer from bronchial asthma is much more active than sympathetic activities. Prolonged light relaxation techniques significantly stimulate the already overactive parasympathetic division, which in turn can provoke severe asthma attack, ulcer bleeding, etc. For clients who suffer from bronchial asthma, I would recommend to perform massage therapy techniques in an intensive, energetic manner (90-100 strokes per minute), similar to pre-event sport massage.
4. The practitioner who ignores the general rules of contraindication for massage therapy can aggravate the problem region and even endanger the client. For instance, massage of the carotid artery in general is counter indicated. In some cases of tachycardia (high pulse rate) doctors massage the carotid artery on purpose in order to reduce the heart rate. Please be aware that in cases of tachycardia only a physician and other specially licensed health care personnel can perform massage of carotid artery. A therapist performing massage on the neck region must be aware and careful not to massage the carotid artery because doing so can cause significant cardiac complications. Massage may dislodge the existing a blood clot trapped in the carotid artery, possibly leading to a stroke or even sudden death.
5. Another counter indication is a massage of moles, tumors and other bulging. Sometimes we can palpate cysts, which could be cancer tumor formations. If one massages this formation on purpose, it can actually cause the cyst to tear, resulting in serious complications such as the spread of cancer cells/lesions. “Muscle knots” term should be excluded from our vocabulary, because there is no such muscle condition in existence. All bulging that we can palpate possibly could be an instance of aforementioned abnormalities. Very often “muscle knots” are confused with the pathology known as myogelosis. Mostly this phenomenon is a result of connective tissue proliferation to the muscle tissue. The main cause of formation of myogelosis is trauma to the muscle (for example by vigorous massage) and/or not adequate treatment of trigger points. If acute trigger point will convert to a sleeping trigger point condition and will be reactivated numerous times, then the cork of myogelosis will be formed. Similar to any other bulging, this formation is prohibited from applying pressure and being massaged. Please be aware that a therapist can massage around the bulging as long as he/she doesn’t massage the bulging itself. In case if in the time of procedure you will palpate such abnormality you should advise your client to see the doctor in order to diagnose the true nature of such bulging.

Energetic Status (condition) of Practitioner Can be a Factor

Electrical activities occur in our bodies 24/7. The central nervous system communicates with the peripheral nervous system to manage the functions of organs and systems through electrical impulses. The constant electrical activities in our body create electromagnetic fields around us. Since electromagnetic fields are not impervious, it would only be right to assume that we could affect each other’s energetic status. Experts of Chinese medicine believe that any disease is the result of blocks, stagnations and disturbances of the flow and distribution of life energy (chi). There are reasons to believe that the nature of (chi) is electromagnetic. Thus Western science, which deals with electrical processes in the human body, might possibly come to the complete agreement with methods Chinese medicine implemented from ancient times.

In order to help a client to restore normal flow of energy, a massage therapist must maintain balance of his/her own energy. If such therapist comes to the table with an imbalanced emotional/energetic status, he/she can perform the protocols correctly while as the client, instead of reacting with improvement and wellness; can experience aggravation – pain and stiffness all over the body.

To maintain a balanced status of energy, the practitioner must feel professionally confident in serving body. This professionalism comes from combining an understanding of the physiological effect of massage, the mindset of love and passion for healing, and the openness and humility of service to the well being of others.

If practitioners understand what they are doing with their hands to the level of visualization, their energetic status start significantly supporting the positive effects of hands-on techniques.

Before beginning a hands-on session it is very important for practitioners to take at least thirty seconds to one minute to do a meditation in order to balance their emotional status. I would recommend for the above-mentioned 30 seconds to one minute to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth and to imagine clockwise peristaltic function of the digestive system. Usually the above mentioned auto-training techniques help one to calm down, relax, and fully prepare oneself to perform a very beneficial massage therapy session with confidence.

In summary

As you understand there is a big difference between aggravation and reaction. A reaction on massage by temporary increase level of pain is not a negative phenomenon, but normal reaction for some patients to the treatment. The good news is that only 10% of clients react to treatment with a brief temporary increase of pain and stiffness etc., while 90% respond to treatment without any uncomfortable reactions. At the same time a massage therapist should be aware of possible aggravation and should always maintain good practices to prevent it.

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