After having an operation, the next critical challenge for a patient is the recovery phase.
It’s critical because the body could either respond positively or negatively to the procedure especially if it’s been a major surgery.
Aside from this concern, there’s almost always that agonizing pain after the effects of anesthesia is gone.
For a faster and more comfortable healing, many patients turn to therapeutic massage.
Recently, the medical field has noticed its benefits so that many practitioners now recommend it to their patients.
Massage’s Historic Place in Healing
The use of massage in physical healing is relatively new in the Western world particularly in the United States when compared to its actual age of existence.
Even before medical operations or pills and drugs were invented, massage was already the choice for healing 4000 to 5000 years ago.
It is believed to have started in India but it’s in China where written evidences and its most prevalent use in therapy are found and very well known.
The earliest argument in favor of therapeutic massage is the need to balance the bodily and spiritual energy to prevent or heal illnesses.
Massage is only a part of the traditional Chinese medicine used around the world. But if traditional Chinese medicine is considered a mainstream form of treatment in most Asian countries, it is only considered a complementary or alternative in the west.
Thus, most Westerners consider it only as a last resort when mainstream medicines fail to provide positive results. Herbal supplements are good examples. In the US, they are not considered medications but only as “food supplements”.
20th Century massage in Western medicine
Older readers may recall being hospitalized in the 1960’s and 1970’s when massaging in hospitals was standard.
Nurses would especially give massages to frail, elderly patients to prevent or treat delirium, a common risk in this group due to anesthesia and postoperative drugs.
“But now most of the nurses who practice it are retired.” (Time Magazine)
Considering recent research findings it’s about time massage gets the recognition it deserves as a respectable part of a multimodal healing approach.
The Benefits of Massage after Surgery
If you would consult a bona fide massage expert, he/she can point out dozens of reasons why you should take advantage of massage therapy after surgery.
In the medical world too, massage therapy is increasingly considered a low cost, simple, and effective nursing intervention. Its main (and clinically proven) benefits are as follows:
1. Massage helps patients deal with pain
It not only helps deal with pain but actually reduces pain as research indicates. There have been several studies concluding the benefits of massage in reducing post operative pain.
Massage can have amazing painkilling abilities..
When someone receives a massage treatment, its effect to the body can be literally like a shot of morphine or a pain reliever (patients in a study said that massage delivered about as much pain relief as a dose from a morphine drip according to Dr. Daniel Hinshaw, a surgeon in the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System).
The same study among patients receiving post-op massage therapy after major surgery found that the patients experienced:
“..markedly less intense and less unpleasant pain and less anxiety than patients who got standard pain medication or individual attention but no massage”.
A 2012 study among cardiac surgery patients found that massage therapy significantly reduced the pain, anxiety, and muscular tension and improves relaxation and satisfaction. (PubMed).
In another study, foot massage in breast surgery patients also showed to be an effective pain management method.
Researchers agree that massage therapy is an important component in the post-op healing process.
2. Massage helps reduce stress and anxiety
These stressed and anxious feelings are common before and after the operation and often make pain even harder to endure.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine published a study finding that shiatsu foot massage, Swedish massage, and acupuncture helped reduce pain and depression in postoperative cancer patients.
3. Massage can prevent swelling
Swelling is natural after an injury or surgery. The lymphatic drainage massage is a particular technique used for swelling.
It helps keep the lymphatic drainage system in order by clearing fluid cellular wastes which are clogged up and are causing the swelling.
Massage can help ease the swelling by relaxing the muscles and ensure proper blood circulation.
4. Massage ensures better blood and oxygen flow
For faster healing of wounds, proper blood and oxygen flow is required. Keeping the blood flow at normal levels is important because it’s the distributor of nourishment towards the affected area.
This way it promotes cellular and tissue repair, and due to clotting, it protects the wound against foreign elements particularly of viruses and bacteria which can cause infections.
The majority of the therapeutic massage techniques now promote good blood and oxygen flow throughout the body.
5. Massage shortens post-op healing time
Because of improved blood flow, massage therapy enhances nutrient delivery in the body thus shortening surgical healing time.
Increasingly studies show that massage therapy shortens hospital stays. Ask your medical team for massage.
The reduced hospitalization is partially because less drug administration and postoperative interventions may be required.
6. Massage helps prevent scar tissue
Massage also helps breaking up scar tissue and prevent creation of more (excessive) scar tissue formation. This goes for internal scar tissue (adhesions) as well as scars on the outside of the skin.
7. Massage helps promote flexibility and mobility
Massage also helps in promoting flexibility of the muscles and joints. Because a patient could have been sitting or just lying before and after the operation, the muscles and joints get stuck and become stiff.
Even if the patient is immovable yet, massage is the best alternative to heat up and exercise those muscles and joints for flexibility and faster mobility.
Massage therapy does appear to have positive effects in the reduction of disability. (Study report on massage after spine surgery).
8. Massage strengthens the immune system
Relaxed muscles stimulate oxygen supply to the organs and skin which, in its turn, strengthens the immune system and prevents infections.
9. Massage improves mood
A 2010-2011 study in the Isfahan Chamran Hospital in Iran found that massage therapy improve the mood of patients after open-heart surgery.
How does it work?
Research shows that massage creates a pain-blocking sensation due to endorphin-like chemicals that are released in the body. These chemicals reduce pain and create a sense of well-being.
All the above mentioned benefits contribute to a faster recovery.
Based on clinical studies, massage can even cut the recovery period by as much as half.
Is massage safe as part of surgery recovery?
The element of ancient traditional healing is safe. Of course check with your surgeon or doctor to find out about your personal situation.
The UCLA Center for East-West Medicine uses massage for most of its 14,000 patients each year to treat post-surgical pain among other things.
Time for the health care industry to catch up
As long as massage therapy isn’t re-introduced in the health industry as an integral part of care patients should be pro-active. Some experts even recommend for patients to “demand massage”. Considering the convincing advantages, it’s in both the institution and the patient their interest.
How to use massage to boost your post-op healing?
Ideally you could go to a massage salon or get an ambulant massage therapist over but this may be costly or difficult if you are non-weight bearing or otherwise limited in your mobility. Check with your health insurance to find out if massage is covered.
“Some U.S. health insurers cover some form of massage therapy”
For those people who aren’t covered or can’t visit a clinic, ‘self massagers’ such as the HoMedics HHP-350 Percussion Action Massager, offer alternatives. They allow anyone, at any moment, to benefit from what massage has to offer.
These tools come in various shapes and types such as heated Shiatsu massage pillows, acupuncture mats, and many more.
A very popular home massage device commonly used to reduce pain is the Tens Handheld Electronic Pulse Massager Unit.
- It sends stimulating pulses along the nerve strands and across the surface of the skin. These pulses block pain signals on their way to reach the brain. The pulses also stimulate your body to produce higher levels of endorphins (its own natural painkillers).
The only downside of such gadgets is that they can’t provide the true human touch as well as presence.
Actual contact from human being to human being trumps using an electronic device but considering the wide range of benefits massage has to offer, these gadgets provide a great way to get your daily massage fix.
Or get massaged more often, after all, during the recovery period there’s time enough for some massaging love.