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The Science Behind: Thai Massage

June 2, 2018

 

You may still be wondering, “What is Thai Massage?” and furthermore “What will pressing and stretching really do for me?” In short, Thai Massage is a combination of Acupressure, compression, and passive, Hatha-style yoga. During a Thai session the therapist will work with a flowing movement. They will move your body in what can almost be viewed as a dance with the practitioner as the lead and the recipient as the follower. For more information you can read here. Because of the impact on the fascia of the body Thai Massage can be seen as impacting all systems of the body, but there are 4 major systems we will discuss today:

  1. The Skeletal System

  2. The Circulatory System

  3. The Muscular System

  4. The Nervous System

 

The Skeletal System

 

The Skeletal system not only shapes our body but works together with our muscles to create our movement patterns. Uniquely, Humans are the only animal to walk upright which presents it’s own challenges and strains. Fighting gravity when your vertebrae are stacked upon one another means we are more susceptible to spinal compression. A healthy spine has 6 distinct movement patterns: flexion and extension, left and right lateral flexion, and left and right rotation. When we keep ourselves in poor posture or live sedentary lives and fail to move through our full range of motion regularly, we strain the muscles of the torso and they become rigid, fighting movement and putting increased tension on the ribs and vertebrae.

  

A Thai massage session incorporates all the movements of the spine to increase mobility within the torso. Stretching increases the space between the vertebrae improving the flow of lymph, synovial fluid, and cerebrospinal fluid; effectively ‘greasing’ the joints. This increased range of motion and assist with conditions such as kyphosis, scoliosis, and lordosis. Furthermore, stretches are not limited to just the torso; the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders are all stretched and moved through their range of motion to joint mobility and lubrication.

 

That being said, Thai Massage is very sensitive to the body’s current capacity. Stretches are never pushed passed the joint’s available range of motion because causing pain triggers muscular reflexes that tighten the muscles. Stretching during a Thai Massage should never cause more than discomfort as we test/push the end range of the joint.

 

 

The Circulatory System

 

Our circulatory system can be viewed as a system of highways that transports necessary materials through the body. The heart is the driving pump of this system, pushing blood through the arteries. The pumping action of our muscles as they contract supports the blood on it’s way back to the heart through our veins. Similar to the pumping of our muscles, the palming and thumbing of Thai Massage assists the movement of blood on it’s course.

 

Additionally, while gravity typically fights the flow of blood, Thai Massage incorporates inversion poses. These position the legs above the heart making it easy for the fluid (including lymph which has no central pump) to flow back to the heart and be re-circulated. This increases the rate at which oxygen, hydration, and nutrition reaches the cells.

 

 

The Muscular System

 

There are over 600 muscles in the body. These move in synergistic and antagonistic patterns. Some muscles share a direction of movement and assist one another (synergistic, ex. The hamstrings group) where others exist on opposite sides of a movement and force the relaxation of the other when contracting (antagonistic, ex. Bicep/Tricep). As mentioned, the stretching and massaging of Thai Massage increases circulation. The increased movement of fluid to the muscles increases muscular relaxation and elasticity and reduces the effects of adhesions. Furthermore, the increased fluid movement will transport body wastes from within the muscles reducing aches and soreness.

  

Additionally, like wood, muscles have a ‘Grain’. Healthy muscle fibers flow along this grain and connect the two ends of the muscle for easy contraction and resiliency. However, when we suffer injury and develop scar tissue or do heavy strength training without proper stretching, this new tissue lays down in more of a patchwork formation. The fibers run whichever way they happen to lie down. Fortunately, these collagen fibers are polarized (they have a positive and a negative end) and our body has an amazing ability. When the muscle tissue is stretched the stretch goes all the way to a cellular level. This pulls at the bonds between molecules and creates a slight electric ‘flow’ referred to as piezo-electric charge. This in turn creates a polarity difference in the tissue itself allowing the collagen fibers to orient themselves along the grain of the muscle.

  

The deep stretches of Thai Massage help to encourage this ‘Graining’ of the muscle fibers, making healthier muscles. Substances are designed to best handle strain from one direction. When the fibers are running multiple directions they are more susceptible to damage because force is being applied in a direction they aren’t designed to hold.

 

 

The Nervous System

 

Once an area is warmed up with the compression and acupressure massage we introduce Hatha Yoga style stretches. Hatha Yoga is a method of passive stretching, where props such as straps are used to assist movements and allow the area being stretched to go completely relaxed. In Thai Massage, the recipient is moved by the therapist and thus has no need of props or tools to facilitate the stretches.

  

The value of passive stretching is that we can encourage complete sedation of the local nervous tissue. When we use active stretching (the antagonist muscle contracts to inhibit the nerves of the stretched muscle, forcing it to relax) we are forced to balance stimulation and sedation of the nervous system. By going passive we are able to induce a physically and mentally relaxing experience.

  

This works because of something called mechanoreceptors, which are embedded in the fascia of the body, particularly around joints. These receptors respond to movement, tension, and temperature to inhibit the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous response. Studies in 1987 and 1999 found long, slow stretches are best for initiating this response. With Thai Massage’s approach of warming up the tissue followed by deep stretches, which address large muscle groups, we successfully activate these mechanoreceptors.

  

Because tapping into the nervous system is vital for inducing muscle relaxation and getting a proper stretch, we also incorporate timed, deep breathing. When we breath through our belly and engage the diaphragm we are directly influencing our nervous system. This is due to the diaphragm’s ties to the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve interfaces with the parasympathetic (rest) response of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Therefor, by combining controlled breathing with deep, non-painful stretches we are actively redirecting the nervous system through two different pathways.

 

 

Bringing It All Together

 

Thai Massage is a truly holistic approach to wellness. By improving fluid movement through our range of motion we lubricate and decompress the joints, assisting the function of the skeletal system. Improving the circulation of the body insures that all tissues get an increased supply of oxygen, nutrition, and hydration. These are the required components for healthy function and repair. By encouraging the ‘Graining’ of muscles after exercise or injury has built up scar tissue we are improving the resiliency of muscles during exertion. And finally, by using multiple pathways to tap into the nervous system we induce a body and mind relaxation response to leave you feeling relaxed yet invigorated.

About the Author:

Marcia is a medically-oriented massage therapist with 8 years experience and specializes in Migraines, Headaches, and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. She studied Thai Massage with internationally trained therapist and educator, Jill Burynski. In addition to working at Body Wellness she runs a website to provide resources for massage therapists seeking to improve practice management skills at MassagePracticeManagement.com.

Resources:

Thai Yoga Massage By Kam Thye Chow

Greenlotusyoga.com/stretching-and-the-nervous-system

The Guide to Modern Cupping Therapy By Shannon Gilmartin

 

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