The Magical World Underneath Your Skin
There isn’t just one type of touch.
Massage is a huge field. It can be used for everything from providing comfort and pain reduction in a hospice setting, to treating either current or long standing rotator cuff lesions.
And there are lots of different techniques for achieving these goals. There are the sensuous, body-length strokes of a well-oiled lomi-lomi massage, the foot-delivered, stretching-oriented Thai massage, the technical light strokes of Manual Lymphatic Drainage, the specific cross fiber frictions of a well assessed treatment massage, the static pressure of Shiatsu or acupressure, the deep shearing of myofascial release. It goes on and on. There are a lot of types of massage out there.
Whatever it is we’re trying to do with massage there are two classes of effect that are possible; mechanical effects and reflexive effects.
Mechanical effects are highly overrated. These are the effects that people tend to think are going on and are the reason why they go to get a massage. These are things like busting up scar tissue, lengthening fascia, elongating and softening muscles, and increasing circulation in blood, interstitial and lymphatic fluid.
This last effect, increasing circulation, does actually happen and is a useful mechanical effect of massage. However it’s actually not possible to lengthen fascia or muscles via the pressure that the massage practitioner exerts on those tissues. They are very tough tissues and the amount of pressure or tensile stress that would be needed to change them would result in major injury and lawsuits.
Which brings me to the heart of massage, reflexive effects.
The scope of reflexive effects possible is many and varied. Reflexive effects are those effects that involve creating a stimulus in the sensory system, that is to say, giving your body news about its environment. Which then travels to one of the processing centers of the central nervous system and from there creates an effect in the body. This effect could take place at the location that the sensation was detected, or it could take place elsewhere or throughout the whole body.
This could be something as simple as applying pressure to a tendon so that the stretch reflex comes into play and causes release of muscle contraction. Or it could be something as complex as allowing the nurturing, non-threatening touch that the body is receiving, to switch the entire neuroendocrine system from a survival, fight-or-flight state to a state of regeneration and preparation to thrive.
The way that touch can do all of these things is via the many types of nerve endings that are embedded in our skin and other tissues. There are nerve endings at varying depths under the surface of your skin.
There are several different nerve endings that tell you about nuances in touch. For instance, there is a specific nerve ending that wraps around the base of each of the hairs on your body. So when a tiny bug walks across your arm and bends a hair over, you feel it. Or if a breeze moves several hairs you feel that.
There are also different nerve endings for deep pressure and for light pressure. Some are formed like an onion and some like a tiny spray of tentacles. Some are like flat paddles.
Some nerve endings specifically tell us about shearing or pulling motions that travel through the skin, or even to the deep fascia that covers the outer surface of the muscles.
The way they turn the movement of your skin into a nerve impulse is a process called mechanotransduction. That means that they convert mechanical distortions into electrical or chemical signals.
Mechanotransduction works deep inside your body as well to form and reform your cells. For instance the squashing of osteocytes in your bones through load bearing exercise tells those cells to create bone along the lines of force that they feel.
Some touch receptors get used to sensations quickly and some don’t get used to it. And some of what we train ourselves to adapt to is probably cultural. For instance, our nerves adapt to the feeling of our clothes or the pressure on our bottoms from the chair we’re sitting in. They don’t adapt as fast to stretching sensations, deep pressure and shearing sensations.
Another interesting thing about these nerve endings that tell us about touch when they are squeezed, flattened or stretched, is that they (or some of them anyway) can tell us about whether that feels good. So, they don’t just give us information about pressure, but they give us their qualitative interpretation. In other words, some types of touch convey a feeling of well-being through the nerves, while other types of touch are interpreted as noxious or threatening.
You might be able to imagine how it would affect your body to have someone touch you roughly, without care for your well-being, and with the intent to supersede your own will with their own. At the very first contact you would know that something was up, and your system would brace itself for the threat.
Conversely, if you’ve ever had a friend place a comforting hand on your shoulder or arm, you might have noticed, or be able to imagine how that conveyed peace and safety to your nervous system.
When touch, specifically massage, doesn’t target the very limited mechanical effects, and instead focuses on creating a stimulus that allows for the almost unlimited range of reflexive effects to take place, then the body can soften muscles, lengthen fascia and make changes to the neuroendocrine system that allow us to thrive.