Let’s say you’ve got arthritis, migraines, or any other pain that’s not related to tight muscles. Can massage help?

In my experience, and based on the current scientific literature: Yes! How can this be? Well, this is where my bias as a massage therapist comes in: I think that ALL pain has at least some basis in soft tissue (muscles, tendons, fascia, etc). If you’ve got migraines, most of that pain probably has a neurovascular cause. There is a cascade of events where your blood vessels become dilated or constricted, your nerves become hypersensitive, and you’re in for a few days of debilitating pain.

Massage can’t touch the blood vessels in your brain, but it can help the muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders. Most of my clients with migraines report tension at the base of their skull, and tightness through their neck. There seems to be a relationship between migraine pain and muscular tension, so what happens when we treat that tension directly?

Some clients notice that tension usually precedes their migraines. They’ll get more and more tense, they’ll get achey shoulders, and by the end of the day they’ll be in a dark room wishing for the pain to go away. What if we could keep your shoulders habitually looser? In my experience, that can prevent the cycle of tension and spasm that precedes all sorts of problems (neck cricks, headaches, jaw pain, etc).

The same thing goes for joint pain. Even if most of the pain is caused by a problem with the joint, the nearby muscles always seem to get involved. They’ll tighten up and become sensitive, compounding the problem. Even if just 25% of the pain is coming from tight and inflamed muscles, I think that’s worth dealing with!

Aside from relieving tension, receiving a massage sends a message to your brain and spinal cord: “Movement and contact can feel good. Maybe I don’t need all this tightness and sensitivity!” You can get a similar message from other pain-free ways of interacting with your body: Yoga, swimming, walking, dancing around your kitchen while you cook, etc. Treat yourself as kindly as you’d treat a best friend, and try not to get frustrated with set-backs. Feeling better takes time, but it’s worth the journey.