Orthopedic massage uses anatomical science and a variety of body manipulation techniques to create measurable, meaningful impact in clients. It can be an excellent complementary treatment to physician or surgical care and physical therapy.
What Is Orthopedic Massage?
Orthopedic surgeons correct skeletal deformities and injuries. Orthopedic massage therapists use alignment and release techniques to help clients recover from injuries and surgery. With modern medical techniques and an evidence-based approach to massage, these practitioners can help you resolve your symptoms without exacerbating your existing conditions. To ensure orthopedic massage is right for you, be sure to talk with your doctor first, especially if you’re pregnant or have deep-vein thrombosis (blood clots).
More therapeutic and medical-based than many other bodywork styles, orthopedic massage bears many similarities to Russian massage, physical therapy, and Rolfing. Practitioners of this “more physical than emotional” massage style put detailed anatomical knowledge into practice. They understand the ways soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and fascia) influence the musculoskeletal system and manipulate trigger areas to release bodily tension, decrease pain, and increase mobility.
Expert orthopedic massage therapists know that pain in one area of the body can be caused by a misalignment, adhesion, or something else in a seemingly unrelated area. Just as acupressure and reflexology therapists seek out the root causes of clients’ pain in the energy meridian system, orthopedic massage practitioners find the origins of pain and misalignment in the physical connections between muscles, soft tissues, tendons, bones, and fascia.
Benefits of Orthopedic Massage
Experts have shown that massage helps patients after orthopedic surgery in both clinics and homes. In a study of 60 patients recovering from arthroscopic knee procedures, researchers found that massage therapy provided an affordable, safe, and effective alternative to prescription painkillers. These observers believe massage allowed patients’ parasympathetic nervous systems to respond by secreting endorphins.
Though orthopedic massage benefits patients with many symptoms and conditions, it has been shown to be particularly effective for certain physical injuries, including:
- Back pain and spasms
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Frozen shoulder
- Knee pain
- Plantar fasciitis
- Tennis and golfers’ elbows
- Whiplash injuries
What to Expect from an Orthopedic Massage Session
Your practitioner will usually begin by talking with you to learn about your medical history and understand your treatment goals. The practitioner will then consider contributing factors and help you create and maintain a treatment plan. Your session will probably last an hour or more.
Your orthopedic massage practitioner will generally use a variety of soft-tissue techniques to loosen your muscles and tendons:
- Active engagement – Practitioners use active engagement (or AE) to reach deep, hard-to-access muscles, treat overuse injuries, and assist clients with well-developed musculature. Your practitioner will compress your muscles, stroke them lengthwise, and apply perpendicular motion. It is of particular use for targeting specifically located muscle tightening injuries like whiplash and lumbar pain.
- Muscle energy technique (MET) – Using this method, your practitioner provides resistance while you voluntarily contract certain muscles. MET can help reduce pain—especially back pain.
- Myofascial release – Your skeletal muscles and connective tissues can be held in place by tight fascial tissues. To conduct these techniques, your practitioner will apply gentle pressure to your body to facilitate stretching of fascia.
- Nerve mobilization techniques – Also called neural mobilization and neurodynamics, this method can improve nervous system function by identifying a strained nerve and locating its source of pain.
- Positional release – This gentle treatment is safe for use on inflamed and painful tissues that are too sensitive for other methods. Your practitioner will manipulate your soft tissues into “positions of ease,” which can temporarily relieve your pain. By holding these tissues in the proper place for a minute or more, they may lengthen and soften, creating the conditions for long-term pain and symptom relief.
- PNF stretching – Properly called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, this common clinical and sports rehabilitation therapy can increase your passive and active range of motion.
- Trigger point therapy – Your practitioner will use elbows, knuckles, and fingers to put variable pressure on certain trigger areas. Short (10-30 second) intervals of this treatment (also known as neuromuscular therapy) release lactic acid and increase circulation.
Be sure to communicate with your practitioner both before and during your session. You will likely get better results if your therapist understands your pain level and tolerance. You can also help your therapist determine the exact location of your discomfort as they manipulate and stretch your related body parts. You can always pause or stop your massage therapy session if you experience overwhelming pain, discomfort, or emotional issues.
Your practitioner may suggest stretches or other self-care exercises you can use to extend the benefits of your therapy after the session. As with any other type of massage, be sure to rehydrate afterward, as your body will likely need to flush lactic acid and other toxins from your system.
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