Rub Your Pain Away

Simple self-massage techniques provide fast, easy relief for everyday aches.

by Linda Melone

May 2010


If you’ve ever rubbed your temples to ease a headache, you’ve used self-massage. “The human touch itself, fingers on the temples, forehead and back of the neck, increases blood flow and immediately sends signal to the brain to relax,” says Stephanie Whittier, LMT, CST, a New York-based licensed massage therapist.

Whittier blames technology for some of the pain people feel. “Repetitive small hand and arm movements such as typing on a computer for hours or texting information on tiny BlackBerry keys can overstimulate the nervous system,” she says. “Hunching over a keyboard creates tension in the head, neck, shoulders and upper back.” The lower body also suffers. Long-term sitting tightens hamstrings, gluteal muscles and hip flexors, which can result in lower back and hip pain.

You can start a self-massage program in the shower. “As you’re washing, spend some time using deeper strokes, squeezing muscles and releasing,” says Whittier. Try incorporating massage into your routine three to seven days a week for 10 to 15 minutes.

Warm up with some cardiovascular activity, recommends Gail Rush, CMT, LMT, director of spa operations at Nova Medical Group in Ashburn, Virginia. “Walk up and down stairs or do jumping jacks for a few minutes,” she says. Warm your hands under running water before each session. Also warm the muscles you plan to work on. A heating pad can help with most areas, while a warm washcloth draped around the neck will help loosen neck and shoulder muscles. Breathe deeply throughout the massage to help muscles relax.


Aromatherapy can help make massage more effective. Lemongrass is good for aches, rosemary helps with cramps and lavender is soothing for muscular strains. These essential oils should always be diluted in a carrier oil, such as sweet almond or sesame seed. Use 12 drops of essential oil for each fluid ounce of carrier; if you have especially sensitive skin, use fewer drops (always test the results on a small patch of skin before using).

To spare stress on fingers and hands, use tennis balls, golf balls or tools such as the TheraCane, a device that provides deep pressure; aromatherapy massage balls; firm rubber balls; or foam rollers. “Massage balls help you focus on your body versus your own hands, which have a lot of nerve endings,” says Whittier. Never rub to the point of pain. (If you have a pre-existing condition find a licensed massage therapist through the American Massage Therapy Association,
www.amtamassage.org
.)

Try these massages every day or whenever you feel muscle tightness:

Head and neck: Squeeze and release the muscle between your head and shoulder as you shrug or rotate the shoulder. Or use a single finger or the TheraCane to apply pressure to a sore spot for 20 to 30 seconds. Release and repeat until the muscle relaxes.

Between the shoulder blades: Place a tennis ball against the wall (freeze it first, if you prefer cold) and lean your back against it, resting the ball between your shoulder blades. For ease of handling, put the tennis ball in a sock and hold onto the open end as you drop it over your shoulder. Or use two tennis balls in a sock, and tie a knot in the middle and on the end to massage both sides at once.

Squat up and down by bending your knees and pause when you reach a tight spot; breathe deeply until you feel the muscle relax, then move on. This also works in a seated position if you have a high-backed chair: Place the ball behind you, take a deep breath, roll your shoulders and press against the ball to open up the area.

Lower back, hips and glutes: Lie on a tennis ball (for a small area) or foam roller (for a larger area) on a forgiving surface such as a bed or couch. For glutes and hips, roll until you find a tender spot and press against it for 20 to 30 seconds; repeat until you feel the muscle relax. Don’t hold your breath.

Feet: Put marbles in a zip-lock bag, or use a tennis or golf ball, and roll under your feet. To reduce inflammation and soothe hot, tired feet, freeze a water bottle and roll under your foot until you feel relief.

“Massage is basic healthcare,” says Whittier. “It’s simply a way to take care of yourself.”

The Ah! of Aromatherapy

Muscle-relaxing massages are only part of what aromatherapy—the art of using essential oils for healing and well-being—has to offer. “Essential oils can boost your immune system and help you stay well,” says Roberta Wilson, certified aromatherapist and author of Aromatherapy: Essential Oils for Vibrant Health and Beauty (Avery/Pengin), adding that they can “help you reduce stress, lift depression and restore or enhance emotional well-being.” In addition to massage, essential oils can also be diffused into the air, placed in baths, including facial steam baths, and added to compresses and skincare products. Essential oils should not be used internally.

There are dozens of essential oils in the aromatherapy arsenal, including:

Basil: “Basil oil increases concentration, sharpens the senses, clarifies thoughts and clears the head,” says Wilson, who adds that it can also help calm nervous tension and ease insomnia. Therapists use it to help clear congestion, reduce pain and ease headaches.

Bergamot: Wilson recommends bergamot’s antiseptic properties to help relieve respiratory and urinary infections, noting that it also helps relieve fever. Emotionally, she says it is “refreshing and uplifting.”

Chamomile: As in its traditional herbal form, this essential oil is used as a mild sedative and digestive aid. It also helps ease bruises and sprains along with swelling and other irritation of the skin.

Eucalyptus: Another germ-fighter, eucalyptus is used to open clogged nasal passages, expel mucus and soothe sore throats. Eucalyptus helps clear skin blemishes by reducing excess oiliness, and its bracing odor helps overcome metal sluggishness.

Geranium: According to Wilson, European physicians use geranium oil to treat diarrhea, gallstones, kidney stones and urinary-tract infections. She says that it can balance hormones, making it useful for PMS and menopausal symptoms. In addition, geranium helps promote skin-cell regeneration and gives the skin a healthy glow.

Lavender: The best-known of all the essential oils, lavender is recommended for all sorts of emotional problems, including depression, irritability, mood swings, nervous tension and stress. Wilson says that European therapists use it for everything from respiratory disorders to headaches and muscular pain. Lavender also helps keep skin and hair looking their best.

Lemon: “Lemon oil enhances immunity by stimulating white blood cell production and improving the body’s ability to combat infection,” says Wilson. She adds that it helps calm the digestive tract, stimulate circulation and tone the major internal organs. In skincare, lemon helps counteract oiliness and encourages exfoliation.

Mandarin (Orange): In addition to helping relieve bronchitis and flu symptoms, Wilson says this oil “aids in the absorption of vitamin C, boosts immunity, helps prevent colds and flu, and relieves some of the symptoms associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.” She adds that it promotes healthy skin by encouraging the production of collagen, a key skin protein.

Melissa: Wilson says that this calming oil acts as a nervous-system tonic and mild sedative. It also eases symptoms associated with PMS, menstrual difficulties and menopause. Therapists use melissa to reduce skin inflammation and redness, and to help treat conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Patchouli: Listen up, dieters: Patchouli oil helps with weight loss,” says Wilson. “It curbs the appetite and it tones and tightens the skin to prevent sagging after weight is lost.” She says that patchouli promotes urination, which reduces water retention, and fights fungi. It also helps ease anxiety and depression by “heightening a sense of joy in life.”

Peppermint: Wilson cites peppermint oil as a nervous-system stimulant that counteracts fatigue and drowsiness. It also helps ease digestive difficulties, especially those related to stress. (An enterically coated form is used by practitioners in treating irritable bowel syndrome; do not drink the straight essential oil for this purpose.) Peppermint also helps ease muscle spasms and pain, and helps cool inflammation.

Rosemary: Known as “the memory herb,” rosemary oil is used to counteract memory loss as well as mental fatigue and loss of concentration. When used in skincare it stimulates cell renewal and improves circulation while reducing oiliness. European therapists also employ rosemary oil in treating disorders such as arthritis, diabetes and migraines.

Ylang Ylang: Soothing and sedative, this oil is used for depression, emotional exhaustion and insomnia in addition to easing muscular tension. Ylang ylang “encourages positive emotions and feelings, helping to improve harmony and confidence,” says Wilson, who notes that it is also used as an aphrodisiac.

Proper storage is crucial to keeping essential oils fresh and potent. Wilson recommends storing them somewhere cool, dark and dry, not in the bathroom or on a windowsill. Keep the bottles tightly capped when not in use.

Wilson warns against what she calls “pseudo-aromatherapy”—items such as bath oils, candles, air fresheners and other products that use the word “aromatherapy” as a marketing tool. Such products rely “on synthetic petrochemicals that merely smell and have no healing qualities,” she says. Many health food stores carry high-quality aromatherapy oils. Don’t hesitate to ask about the origin of a particular line’s products, and don’t expect to pay bargain prices for pure essential oils.

If you have a pre-existing health condition, consult a professional aromatherapist. To learn more, visit the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s website at www.naha.org.

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