The Evolution of Massage: Hands-On Healing Power Gains Momentum

by Lee Walker

The ancient healing practice of massage therapy is playing an important role today in the emerging golden age of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Surprisingly, it remains comparatively underrepresented in U.S. medical school curricula, while Massage Today reports that “Insurance reimbursement for massage therapy is at an all-time high.”

From the time that Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, introduced the idea that a physician should be experienced in rubbing, massage therapy has moved in and out of the traditional medical models of various cultures. Current practitioners attribute its staying power to continued awareness of the inherent healing and therapeutic value of massage, now the leading form of bodywork in the United States, according to the American Massage Association.

Kneading, tapping and stroking, the common ancestors of the 100-plus techniques used by today’s massage therapists, have survived two evolutionary spirals, but acceptance of massage as a prominent healing tool has not followed an uninterrupted ascent.

Starting in 1800 B.C., when East Indian ayurvedic massage techniques were used to maintain mental health and prevent disease, the development of related healing modalities, such as Reiki, acupressure, Shiatsu, Canadian deep muscle massage, lomilomi and Swedish massage, generally gained in acceptance. When, in 1884, skeptical British physicians alleged that its practitioners were stealing patients, the Incorporated Society of Trained Masseuses formed to legitimize their approach. They set about creating regulations and establishing a clear practice model for physical rehabilitation; today the organization exists as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Many of the techniques used by its members still reflect treatment practices invented prior to the society’s inception.

Since the 1970s, renewed interest in hands-on methods of manipulating muscles and other soft tissues has propelled the therapeutic use of touch into its latest upward growth spiral, freeing it from the gravitational pull of another bout of opposition from mainstream medicine in the early 1930s. Now on an accelerated course, massage again has the opportunity to assume a celebrated place in the annals of medicine, just as it did in 1936, when Dr. Thomas Lathrop Stedman included it as a “scientific method” among therapeutics in his Practical Medical Dictionary.

In Westchester, NY, massage therapist Meredith Gilbert has seen an increase in the number of new moms signing up for her infant massage classes. “Moms are seeking out more holistic and natural approaches to enhance their baby’s well being,” says Gilbert, creator of the mobile spa company Tranquility Has No Boundaries, “and massage is one of them.” Gilbert has also seen a new type of repetitive stress injury on the rise. “I’ve treated injuries and tendonitis due to playing the Nintendo Wii gaming system,” she says, “and I’ve treated symptoms associated with ‘Blackberry Thumb’—an overuse condition associated with many of today’s handheld devices.”

Marcus Feighery, a co-owner at Synchronicity Healing Center in Pawling, NY, says people now realize that massage is no longer a luxury, but a necessity to maintain good health, especially in difficult and stressful economic times. “Stress can cause strokes, cancer, heart disease and all manor of illness relating to the immune system,” says Feighery. He reports that many of his clients have experienced improved joint range of motion and flexibility, relief from depression (due to the release of endorphins) and a significant increase in circulation after massage therapy. Like many of the estimated 265,000 to 300,000 licensed massage therapists in the United States,Feighery’s repertoire includes Swedish, Deep Tissue, Hot Stone, Pre-natal and Sports massage, with Deep Tissue being the most requested technique for stress relief.

For those considering a career in massage therapy, Westchester has its very own fully accredited training institution, the Finger Lakes School of Massage in Mount Kisco, NY. Campus Director Amy Vona says students hone their craft in the school’s large massage clinic classroom. “The primary goal of the school is to promote personal awareness through touch, inviting students to learn massage in a context of inquiry and empowerment,” says Vona. “Students [here] learn a wide variety of techniques as they progress through our certification program, including Swedish Massage, Reflexology, Energy Work, Connective Tissue Therapy, Neuro-Muscular Therapy, Shiatsu, Aromatherapy, and Sports Massage.” And for those seeking massage at a great price, the Finger Lakes School offers professional sixty to seventy-five minute student massages for just $35.

While more research is needed to support specific health benefits of massage, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) continues to sponsor studies. The effort is to determine if and how the changes that occur in the body during massage influence health, and to identify the conditions for which massage may be most helpful.

Unwilling to wait for such statistical evidence, ever-growing numbers of American adults—18 million per a 2007 NCCAM study—have chosen to make use of massage. Their testimonials regularly attest to its therapeutic benefits and recognize its worth as an aid to general wellness—a positive sign that the current positive trend will continue.

Contact Meredith Gilbert of Tranquility Has No Boundaries, 434 White Plains Road in Eastchester, NY, at 914.497.9917 or visit TranquilityHasNoBoundaries.com.

Contact Marcus Feighery of Synchronicity Healing Center in Pawling at 845.855.1172 or 347.728.2100 or visit MassagebyMarcus.net.

Contact Finger Lakes School of Massage in Mount Kisco at 914.241.7363 or visit flsm.com. To book a student massage, call 914.241.7363 ext. 18.

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