What does the San Miguel River and a healthy human body have in common? As a former environmental educator with a passion in natural sciences, and a current massage therapist with enthusiasm for making peoples’ bodies feel better, I often contemplate the similarities between ecological systems and human physiology. The health of each comes down to this: Absence of toxins and good circulation result in properly functioning systems, whether on a landscape scale or within a human body or a specific system, such as the muscular, nervous, or lymphatic systems. Massage therapy assists in creating more optimally-functioning human systems through flushing out toxins and promoting improved circulation via numerous modalities.
Healthy muscles do not hurt or have painful sensations when palpated. Tight, sore, tender muscles suffer from lack of proper circulation due in part to build-up of toxins; waste products from muscular exertion, such as lactic acid and byproducts of cellular respiration. Simple Swedish massage strokes, such as effleurage (gliding) and petrissage (kneading), encourage increased blood flow through muscular tissue. Freshly massaged skin often depicts a pink or reddish hue, where pressure has been applied; evidence that capillaries have been flushed with increased blood and oxygen flow, due to the palpation of the skin’s surface. Accumulation of lactic acid causes muscles to become stuck in a painful state of contraction, just like a dam on a river, accumulating silt and pollution, blocking fish passage, and inhibiting the natural seasonal flows of the rushing water.
Deep, targeted massage work, or trigger-point therapy, removes blockage, forcing chronically contracted muscle fibers to release. With static direct pressure, circulation to surrounding tissue is temporarily impeded; so muscles cannot contract. With this momentarily diminished blood supply due to holding a deep pressure point, histamines are released, thinning blood vessel walls and allowing the area to then be flushed with a fresh blood supply, clearing metabolic wastes, and circulating tissue properly. This action is similar to the gushing rush of spring snowmelt swelling the banks of our creeks and river, scouring away the leaves and detritus from the previous fall, creating a clean rushing channel of unobstructed fresh water.
Nerves can be impinged, squeezed or compromised due to overly tight muscles. For example, sciatica can be exacerbated by a tight piriformis muscle, one of the gluteal group. Thoracic outlet syndrome, nerve pain or numbness down the arm, can be associated with tight pectorals and scalene (neck) muscles, squeezing blood vessels and nerves to the point of inhibiting their natural flow. This pattern is seen in waterways as well, when their natural flow paths are “squeezed” through any variety of methods: siltation of creeks, channelization of waterways, diversions, and other practices resulting in diminished overall in-stream flow, or circulation, of the whole river system.
Lymph massage is beneficial toward flushing impurities from our systems. This light-touch massage can assist in lymphatic drainage, reduce edema and lymphedema, increase lymphocyte levels, which fight invading pathogens, and promote immune system function. The lymphatic system is set up much like the rivers and wetlands of the San Miguel River Basin: lymph, like water, flows through lymph vessels and capillaries (tributaries), toward lymphatic trunks and ducts (rivers). Along its course, lymph pools, while being filtered, in lymph nodes; like ponds and wetlands along our tributaries, which serve the important role of filtering impurities from our surface water. Lymph nodes are defense stations, producing lymphocytes that destroy pathogens; just as wetlands and ponds are necessary filters for the overall health of our river, taking up excess nutrients, filtering pollution and holding excess water.
Drinking lots of water before and after massage work will assist in releasing adhesions and associated impurities. We must be well hydrated to assist the service of the bodywork, allowing toxins to flow out of the adhered tissues, and blood and oxygen to circulate properly throughout, just as rivers need enough uninhibited flow to provide the ecosystem services they offer. Here it can be said, as often applied to environmental issues, dilution is a solution to pollution.