Most of us have heard of massage, physical therapy and chiropractors, but not other therapeutic methods such as others like Cranial-sacral, Structural therapy. Massage comes in many different styles, from well-known Swedish, Sports and Thai massage to lesser known systems like neuromuscular. Osteopathy and Chiropractic are similar in many ways. Chiropractor generally works on the spine and joints, not much on muscles and soft tissue. They do very specific adjustments of joints using quick forced movements. Osteopaths also do adjustments, but are more global in orientation and work on other parts of the body as well. They tend to use slower gentler more repetitive movements and also work on soft tissue. Sometimes practitioners mix different approaches. I use the term “bodywork” as a generic term that encompasses these different approaches. Different forms of bodywork have developed over the past three decades. It can be confusing for people. I’ll try to bring some order and understanding to this landscape.

All forms of bodywork involve some degree of touch and manual manipulation. Although Pilates and Yoga work with the body, I do include them here. Different forms of bodywork have fundamental similarities, but they have different goals, and they look and work with the body differently as well. As a health consumer, it is good to know the differences and your goals before you select one. Instead of contrasting these methods, I will explain on how use them. You can understand bodywork through these four categories: Relaxation, Fixing, Management and Transformation.

We intuitively know the positive effects of touch. It’s a biological and social need. Touch and hands-on work is the essence of all bodywork. Touch and manual manipulation in the right hands can be a powerful healing tool. It can relax muscular tension, relieve pain and positively impact your whole being. Infants and children need it for social bonding, emotional growth and brain development. Science is gradually discovering the physiological mechanism involved in touch-chemistry and the relaxation-response, and how the body interfaces with the mind and emotions. We can now explain how it affects different systems in the body. Our skin, the largest organ in the body acts as an emotional receptor. There are pressure-receptors under the skin (Pacinian corpuscles) that send signals to the brain and Vagus nerve which has branches through the body including to key organs like the heart. Touch decreases the stress-released hormone Cortisol, and increases the hormone-neuropeptide, Oxytocin. Oxytocin creates a felt-sense of trust and connectedness, which facilitates communication and bonding. It is the biological foundation of connecting. [Foot note: Oxytocin directly effects the Orbital Frontal Cortex in the same area of the brain that responds positively to pleasing smells and sweet tastes like chocolate!] The heart rate slows down, you feel calm and relaxed, as the central nervous system balances. Touch can also help strengthen the immune system. Once the nervous system relaxes, the whole body responds and sets the stage for physical and emotional healing.

Hands-on-work is more than just for relaxing tight muscle but can heal trauma, pain and functional disorders. Many people are recommended medically imaging (MRI and Ultrasound) to discover what their physical disorders are, but that does not always correlate to cause. You can be given a medical diagnosis of tendinitis or bursitis, but the specialist may not know where the symptoms originate, only where the pain is. A medical image doesn’t explain the problem. Even when you have a picture of the locations you don’t know how to treat it. A physician who finds a problem in the image, and a positive clinical test may refer you for surgery even though it’s not necessary, and in many cases, will not help! A torn ligament or tear isn’t necessarily the cause, and in many cases it can be treated with the right kind of bodywork and exercise. That’s very good news. Due to the integrated complexity of the body, physical special testing may not be able to determine the cause. The bottom line is, tissue damage doesn’t correlate imaging and symptoms origins, and conventional medicine doesn’t usually know that bodywork can help or which to recommend.

People seek out bodywork for various reasons, like a pulled muscles, chronic pain, or for relaxation. Some approaches work only locally and others view the problem from a global body perspective. A global perspective is always preferable. The first two categories, relaxation and fixing are the most commonly used approaches. “Fixing” is what conventional medicine and some forms of bodywork do. They identify a problem and a diagnosis may or may not be given, followed by actions to deal with the symptoms. This can involve different degrees of touch and/or manipulation of the body. The “relaxation” approach can be used to feel “better” without addressing any particular symptoms or as an adjunct to other therapies. But relaxation itself can facilitate healing because it balances the nervous system which consequently allows the body to self-correct itself. In conventional Medicine medication or surgery is used; bodywork takes a hands-on approach. Despite popular opinion, clinical evidence shows that bodywork can be more effective and safer than conventional medicine. Even a stomachache can be alleviated using pressure points, no need for antacids. Physicians usually prescribe painkillers for pain, muscle tension and pulled muscles. That only hides the symptoms and does nothing for the pulled muscles. It ignores the underlying cause. People end up seeking some form of bodywork or physical therapy. That’s a much better idea because you’re no longer only hiding the symptoms using drugs, which have toxic side effects. Working directly on the body can alleviate the pain by directly fixing it. But participation is still usually passive, and you rely on the skill and proficiency of the practitioner.

Most people don’t want to go through invasive procedures typical of conventional biomedicine. What role do you play in the process of getting help using bodywork? How do you participate? Some people are passive participants, but you can also be an active agent in your healing process. For this learning and self-education come into play. The practitioner should help empowering you. This manner of working goes beyond temporary relief, by facilitating transformative change. You don’t only need to rely on the practitioner because you can learn how to work with the underlying causes that created the problem. To go beyond the “fixing” approach you not only look at where the pain is, but where it is coming from-the root causes. Where is the pain and muscular tension coming from? Why do I still have poor posture? These are some of the question you might ask. For transformation to happen some form of self-education is required. That might involve exercises, lifestyle changes, changes in posture, dietary changes, and even psychological work. The problem isn’t just temporarily relieved (“I feel better now”), nor do you only find a way to avoid it (“don’t play tennis”) but you discover a structural imbalance (hip rotation) and/or what psychological patterns are involved (difficulty handling stress and/of confrontation). These are only some examples.

In “managing”, the practitioner becomes a guide as well a hands-on technician. You find out what the problem is, how to learn live with it, and manage it. This is the next step in learning self-reliance, which can minimize your reliance on therapy and expanses. The process can involve behavioral changes and exercise, like strengthening and yoga. This approach is especially effective for chronic and recurring conditions. This requires a lot of information and experience in a wider range of disciplines about how the body works and interacts with the mind. This is a step in the direction of holistic approach. You can deal both directly with the problem and help prevent it from recurring in the future. This leads into the next category of “transformation”, which offers a great deal more possibilities. The transformative approach requires a lot more commitment on your part and more knowledge on the part of the practitioner. Here we discover a lot about ourselves, our abilities and limitations, and how our life-style affect’s our health issues. I’ve found that people who have long-term chronic health problems often have to turn to this approach. They haven’t found solutions for change. This demonstrates some of the ideals of holistic medicine. The body, mind, emotions and life are not considered separately but looked at as an integrated dynamic whole. You can discover the functional problem, the structural imbalances and possibly unhealed physical and psychological traumas that have remained hidden before. This kind of work requires extensive training and knowledge. Be cautious of practitioners going beyond their training and qualifications. The practitioner acts as a facilitator not only as a “fixer”. Transformation happens on a deeper level and major life changes sometime follow. Health and physical problem can resolve because change happens in the whole person. I always recommend that you identify what your problem is, the possible underlying causes, and the options for solving it. Then you need to determine what your goals are. Afterwards you can find the right type of bodywork you need. In the long run this is the most empowering approach to your health.

© 2017 Keyvan Golestaneh