Light Therapy: Baking the pain away

Let the sun’s rays bake my pain away…

I am FINALLY on vacation after a long, hard year of doing what a New Yorker does best – hustling! Gratuitous amounts of massage meant that business has been very good, but inevitably that overwork had its downside a.k.a tendonitis. My workouts helped me push through and past my ¨magic number¨ of massages per day, but with all that repetative movement it was inevitable that I would develop an overuse injury. Nevertheless, in the weeks that led up to my Mediterranean vacay, I had been laying out in the sun every morning before work to both settle my mind and develop a ¨starter¨ tan. The added bonus was the heat of the sun hitting directly onto my upper back and shoulders really dissipated a lot of the pain and tension I felt from the previous day´s physical demands. Unbeknownst to me this heliotherapy I was giving myself is actually a therapeutic technique dating back to antiquity. A number of ancient cultures had an idea of the healing properties of light. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed sitting in the sun to heal a variety of illnesses. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, preached that the sun could help heal nerves and muscles. Many ancient Greeks built roofless buildings for the purpose of exposing themselves to the sun´s rays. Outside of ancient Greece, the Egyptians took it a step further and practiced bathing themselves in various colored light to cure diseases. Thousands of miles away in India, medical texts dating back to 1,500 BC also note the healing properties of light for skin disorders. Go even further to China and their medical texts from over 2000 years ago detail a range of color and light therapies for skin and mental illness.

A woman receiving light from a modern light therapy i.e. phototherapy box

So, seeing that the ancients had an inkling of what the sun could do for one´s health, modern medicine didn´t get the memo until the early 19th century, where Niels Ryberg Finsen, a Danish doctor of Icelandic decent, studied the medicinal affects of light rays. His impetus was the severe metabolic disease he suffered from whose symptoms  he experimented with sunbathing to relieve. He died a year after winning the Nobel for a phototherapeutic device he created that simulated sun light to treat several skin conditions. Thirty years later, scientists realized a lack of Vitamin D produced in the body by exposure to sunlight, was the main cause of a disease known as ¨Rickets¨ which leads to the weakening and softening of bones. Twenty years after that, researchers in Hungary used soft laser light to relieve arthritis pain. In later years, NASA scientists did a plethora of research on the manner that LED light affects plant biology in an effort to understand how to grow plants in space. What they found was a very small spectrum of light provided most of the energy needed to grow plants. From this research, more strides were made in the understanding of the healing properties of light within animal and human cells. Currently, two forms of phototherapy exist; Non targeted light therapy that comes from a box, like in the image of the woman above and targeted light therapy, which is administered by a laser. These forms are used with much success in the treatment of such skin disorders as psoriasis, non-severe acne, vitiligo, eczema, atopic dermatitis, polymorphous light eruption and lichen planus. They have also been effective at treating mood and sleep disorders like SAD (seasonal affective disorder), non seasonal depression and circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep phase disorder. Further medical research is being done with light therapy to address accelerated wound healing and pain management, which brings me back to my tendonitis. My experimentation with light therapy from its natural source (the sun) elicited the following note. On the days that I did not lay out because weather did not permit me to, I found that the pain and weakness in my anterior shoulder and neck would become mildly worse and last the full work day. The days that I did get about 45 mins of sun exposure, it felt more like a dull ache and only after doing 6 hours of massage at the end of my day. It is clear to me that the sun does heal. In the two weeks I will be bathing in its Mediterranean glory, my hope is to eradicate most of the pain and heal those weary tendons. I am looking forward to the day when the medical community finally approves its use for pain management. We need more natural and ancient approved manners to heal our bodies and minds.

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The Magic Number

What’s your magic number?

How many massages can you do in a day?

This is a popular question posited to me by many a new and regular client. You can never be fully honest for obvious reasons. You don’t want to seem tired and overworked, even if you are, because now the client is thinking they will get a shitty massage or feel guilty that they are number (insert double digit) of the day. If I am in the spa setting, I usually make a joke and say that I am “strong like bull” in a mock Eastern European accent and tell them not to worry. If I am in a clinical setting, I distract them back to the matter at hand – their condition, thus dismissing the question altogether. If they bring it up again, I then tell them these clinical massages are shorter and more focused, so don’t worry about me. Let’s focus on you!

The only thing a client should be focused on…

Truthfully, there is a magic number of massages a therapist can perform consecutively before burn out happens. Of course, this number is different for all of us. I weight train and exercise at least three times a week; therefore I am “strong like bull.” Despite this strength and stamina, I know that if I do 5.5 hours of consecutive massage, I am at my body’s limit for the day. I learned this from the rare times I had done 7 or even 8 hours of consecutive massages. The next day, I could barely make my hands into fists coupled with the ache in my forearms and shoulders. Now, for those of you who may say, “You work a 6 hour shift? That’s so part time.” Let me take a moment here and define what consecutive means in this context. These massages are occurring literally back to back. Once the one client is off the table, there are between 5 to 7 minutes to get the room changed over, grab a sip of water, then run to get the next guest without looking like you ran to get them. This is usually what happens in a spa setting, as the booking is done to maximize profitability; not to consider the physical demands made on the therapist. So, you see how 5.5 hours of continuous physical work plus the added cardio of running up and down stairs for guest pick up, drop off and supplies is enough of a full work day for me. You cannot compare it to a 9-5 p.m. desk job, which exhausts many in a different manner (i.e. from holding their bodies in poor sedentary posture and mentally focusing on a screen with few breaks).

Burnout of a different kind…

I recall working an event where another therapist boasted at the amount of clients they could take on in a day. Observing their body mechanics, I assessed that within a few years this therapist would surely burn out. Chronic Tendonitis is a common occurrence in any profession that requires repetitive movements over long periods of time. Taking breaks to stretch, hydrate and regroup mentally and physically allow this career to last beyond the statistical death knell of 3-5 years. I’m not ashamed or scared to say NO when asked to go above and beyond my limit at this 3 year mark of my professional career. After all, I want to be able to straddle both physical worlds – the demands of my fitness regimen with those of my profession. I feel blessed that I know what my magic number feels like, as it makes me a better practitioner for my current and future clients. As for the rest of my fellow LMT’s, may yours pop up sooner than later.

Champissage – from your head down to your toes!

Way back when I was a little girl, I used to rub my father’s head in order to help him fall asleep – an early sign of my eventual path into massage therapy, I’m sure. This task was requested of all family members, but I was the only one with the patience to do it. I would mindlessly play with his hair until his tensions were chased away by slumber. Little did I know what a therapeutic thing I was truly doing for him.

In my massage practice, one of my favorite ways to end a session is with a scalp massage. I usually put a few drops of conditioning oil in my hands and then proceed to cover the circumference of the head with rhythmic strokes until the entire scalp has been moisturized. Most clients either fall asleep or zone out to the verge of sleepiness by the time I finish. I do this both to relax them and give their hair a little TLC. I never learned a specific protocol for addressing the scalp. I just kind of did what felt natural and what related to a client’s condition, if they had one.

In India, head massage is a way of life. Practiced for thousands of years, it is not only an integral part of the Indian woman’s grooming ritual, but also an alternative medicinal treatment for many conditions, as outlined in ancient Ayurvedic texts. It was brought to the west in 1973 by osteopath and massage therapist, Narendra Mehta, who felt there was a gap in the full body massage that soothing head massage could fill. Dubbing it champissage, a blend of the indian word for “head” and massage, he opened a school in London and has now made this the top complimentary technique practiced amongst therapists in the UK. The certification course is just four days long and teaches how to properly address the shoulders, upper arms, neck, scalp, face and ears to reduce stress and flush out the buildup of energetic debris that affect one’s health and well being.

The interesting thing about champissage is its ability to be a stand alone treatment, sans the full body massage. The way the course is structured, therapists learn how to address the shoulders, upper arms, neck, scalp, face and ears with massage and energetic balancing techniques based on Chakra energy. A chakra is a channel of energy that follows a central path down the body starting from the crown of one’s head and ending at the base of the spine.  Each chakra branches off in the form of “petals” that distribute their energy through the body. The zones addressed through champissage encompass 3 chakras – the crown, the brow and the throat. Each has a profound energetic representation that makes it clear to me why just performing a champissage can feel like the entire body is addressed.

The Crown chakra or Sahasrara is considered the chakra of pure consciousness. Its role is like that of the pituitary gland, which sits on its own little crown deep within the skull and regulates the body’s functions through the release of hormones via the Endocrine system and communicates with the Central Nervous System via the hypothalamus. This chakra relates to physical action with a sense of cause and affect otherwise known as karma, mental action with respect to a sense of unity and belonging to the collective universe and emotional action through a sense of experiencing another person’s experience as if you were inside them, being them.

The Brow chakra or Ajna is also known as the third eye. It’s role can be correlated  to the function of the pineal gland, which is a light sensitive gland that produces a hormone, melatonin, that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Keeping with this concept of light and dark balance, this chakra balances the higher and lower selves. It also fosters trusting inner guidance through the access of intuition. Mentally, it deals with visual consciousness and emotionally, clarity on an intuitive level.

The Throat chakra or Vishuddha relates to communication and growth through expression. This chakra is paralleled to the thyroid gland, which is located in the throat and responsible for producing hormones that regulate growth and maturation. Physically, it governs communication, emotionally independence, mentally fluent thought and spiritually, it governs a sense of security. It is associated with the upper extremities; therefore addressing this chakra affects the neck, arms and hands.

Western therapists who have learned and received champissage describe a sense of mental and physical clarity post-massage, along with an increase in mobility and reduction in tension. It makes sense when these above 3 chakras are so integral to one’s sense of self and relationship to things outside of one’s body on spiritual, emotional and mental levels. I recall when learning the neck muscles in school, our instructor cautioned that for many people the throat and face could access all kinds of emotional triggers from past traumas and experiences. That is why it became so important to foster a sense of safety and trust with the client, so that they would know it would be okay to let go, no matter what feelings bubbled up to the surface during the work. A slow buildup is the recommended protocol for energetic balancing with respect to champissage. In this way, the client can trust in the touch and be prepared for the deeper strokes that come toward the end of the massage.

Although many spas in the U.S. are starting to offer this form of massage under various marketing monikers, its therapeutic value should not be dismissed. Whether you are receiving champissage at the day spa or in the offices of a licensed practitioner, the affects are still profoundly therapeutic.

SOURCES:

http://www.massagemag.com/spa/treatment/indianhead.php

http://www.champissageinternational.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra