Massage: A Hands-On Approach to Treating Addiction

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The art of massage has a long history as a therapeutic practice and has been used since ancient times to relieve sore muscles, loosen stiff connective tissue, ease away stress or simply to aid relaxation.

Modern healing applications abound as massage is utilized in sports training, injury treatment, surgical rehabilitation and more. The results of these and other practices demonstrate that massage is more than just a way to be pampered at the local spa. In fact, based upon specific research, experts believe that massage can provide distinct physical and mental health benefits as part of a comprehensive program for treating addiction.

Massage and Detox

Early stages of addiction treatment often involve the need for detoxification. In conjunction with medically supervised detox programs, massage is beneficial in the treatment of toxicity because it helps improve lymph flow through the lymphatic system.

Normally, toxins circulating in the blood are eliminated through the liver, kidneys and colon. However, repeated substance abuse can lead to a condition known as “toxin overload,” wherein the body is unable to eliminate all the toxic substances in an effective manner. This can cause toxins to build up in the body’s tissues. Massage therapy stimulates the circulatory system and helps remove toxins from the tissues by improving lymphatic flow.

Massage and Brain Chemistry

Neurological biochemistry plays a significant role in the development of addictive behaviors—in particular, the function of dopamine upon the mesolimbic reward system, also known as the “pleasure pathway” of the brain. Addictive substances and behaviors stimulate this same brain circuitry and then hijack it. Dopamine levels stay lower than average during the withdrawal process and into early recovery until brain chemistry normalizes.

Massage therapy has been proven to produce higher levels of dopamine and serotonin. As a result, massage can help restore an individual’s natural chemical balance, making it a valuable aid in a behavioral addiction treatment program.

Massage and Lowered Stress

Those recovering from addiction undergo unique types of stress and anxiety, which can complicate the recovery process. Here again, massage provides an important benefit with its ability to dramatically reduce stress.

Several studies conducted by the Touch Research Institute document that massage therapy lowered levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone produced by the body. When cortisol levels are decreased, clients felt much calmer and experienced less anxiety, depression and agitation, and even fewer cravings.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, there is considerable research that validates the ability of massage to diminish stress, beyond the reduction of cortisol. Certain types of massage produce significant decreases in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and oxygen consumption. In controlled studies, after a 10-15 minute chair massage, changes in psychological states were measured by a variety of scales and techniques, indicating positive improvements.

A wealth of studies is available that provides evidence for a seemingly endless list of additional physical and mental health benefits that can be derived from regular massage therapy. Even so, by itself, massage is not the sole answer for treating addiction. But with its many verified benefits, it is a powerful corollary to any rehabilitation program.

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