How does massage affect pain?
Pain travels the body through nerve receptors at the point of injury and moves towards the spinal cord where it is processed. From there it continues on to the brain, where it is modulated and you recognize the signal of pain cognitively. Massage can address pain in different ways. It can be applied at the source of the injury by breaking the pain cycle. The pain cycle usually begins with tissue ischemia. Tissue ischemia is a reduction in blood circulation, and oxygen not being delivered to the tissue in the affected area, and this results in pain. Massage can break the pain cycle by increasing blood flow to the ischemic tissue by mechanical force/pressure.
In the peripheral nervous system, massage can help affect the processing of nociceptive firing. A massage technique called cross-fibre frictioning is a quick movement performed on injured tendons or ligaments. A network of nerves known as a ‘gate’ can block the transmission of small-fibre, slow moving pain impulses to the brain. The blocking occurs through stimulating proprioceptive nerve receptors which are supplied by larger, faster sensory nerve fibres. This is done by the frictioning massage technique. Basically, the pain intensity can be temporarily reduced by additional sensory input, whether by massage or rubbing your toe after stubbing it. This theory is known as the pain gate theory. In the central nervous system, neurochemicals such as endorphins are produced in the brain and released throughout the body in response to pain, to help control it. One study suggests that these neurochemicals are not released in a pain-free client during massage, but new studies are being done on neurochemical release during massage in clients experiencing pain.
While this is a simple explanation of how massage can affect pain, there are many studies that link the benefits of massage to various types of pain whether it’s muscular, visceral, cephalic, emotional, among many others.
Reference: Clinical Massage Therapy, by Fiona Rattray & Linda Ludwig