Recovering from Surgery? Get a Massage!

Sharon Willis

by Sharon Willis | August 10, 2010 @ 03:00PM

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European and Asian medical communities have long viewed therapeutic massage as an important part of total health maintenance. We in the United States, however, have only recently begun seriously to explore its many applications. We all know that massage feels good. Perhaps that is why, ironically, we seem to overlook its place in mainstream medicine. Still, the fact remains that therapeutic massage can promote healing in a variety of common stress-related conditions – including post-surgery recovery.

One of most important things a person can do to promote his/her own wellness is to move. Our movement throughout the day should alternately contract and relax the muscles attached to the skeletal framework. When we move, our muscles change shape. This allows their net-like connective tissue to remain flexible. When we don't move enough, this connective tissue can become "stuck," leading to stiffness in the muscle. Over time, this stiffness can lead to poor posture and fatigue as the rest of the body tries to compensate for the inflexible muscle.

Regular walking and stretching breaks help us to stay "unstuck." The result is better posture and reduced fatigue. But when you can't move enough – when you're tied to a desk all day or recovering from surgery – and you wind up feeling stiff and tired, a therapeutic massage can help work and stretch those muscles into a healthier shape and condition.

Stiffness can also be brought on by illness, injury, or recovery from surgical procedures. In these situations not only are people relatively immobile, but the tissue surrounding the injured site tends to contract protectively. This natural form of contraction is meant to guard us from further harm, but this can become unhealthy when the muscle tissue fails to relax again. Massage therapists sometimes refer to this prolonged contraction as "holding" – a common cause of bad posture, inadaquate respiration, poor circulation, fatigue, and therefore, slow healing. An experienced massage therapist can help to identify areas of muscular holding, which then can be worked, retrained, and restored to optimal condition and comfort.

There are, broadly speaking, two periods involved in physical recovery after surgery, 1. immobilization and 2. rehabilitation. Immobilization is a period of imposed protection during the more vulnerable period immediately following surgery. The site of surgery is prevented from movement – this is a time for rest and of passive healing. Your doctor will tell you to "take it easy" for a specified length of time, and your body will likely give you the same message, at least for awhile. You'll be in bed, or perhaps resting on the couch or in a comfortable chair. Then, after your body has done most of its healing work, it is time for rehabilitation – a time for gentle and then more vigorous exercises to help your body return to optimal functioning.

When is it appropriate to introduce massage into the healing process? Always ask your doctor for guidance in your specific situation. Generally speaking, massage should not be administered directly to the area immediately surrounding a recent incision. However, this does not mean that massage shouldn't be used during the immobilization period of the recovery process. Inactivity is hard on our systems: connective tissue becomes less pliant, and when the entire body is immobilized, the lymph system has a much harder time clearing out dead bacteria and other undesirable substances from the body. Massage – unless you doctor advises otherwise -- can assist the healing process by improving circulation and lymph flow, and keeping connective tissue flexible.

Then, during the rehabilitation period, massage can help to break up adhesions in connective tissue. It can also help us to release the holding that occurs when our bodies have suffered trauma. A massage session may also provide a safe environment for noting -- and perhaps even letting go of -- the feelings associated with the holding. This emotional letting-go can be truly therapeutic as well.

But before you call in a massage therapist, make sure that you have your doctor's approval. Use a massage therapist recommended by your doctor, or have the therapist consult with your doctor's office before proceeding! 

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