Heal Your Body, Soothe Your Mind

Because I am not one, I am always amazed by people who are able to enjoy something without analyzing it to death. These are the people who go to the comedy club ready to laugh, while I sit in the back row with my notebook and pen, ready to transcribe my favorite material. The people who chat at their restaurant tables, enjoying their food, while I chat up the waiter, trying assess the macronutrient profile of my $60 entree. The people who doze off during a massage, while I exhaust my therapist with questions about connective tissue and localized inflammation.

What can I say? I just like to know why things work. Comedians and waiters think I’m out of my mind, and occasionally they tell me so, but fortunately my massage therapist is kind and patient; if she has me pegged for a nuisance, I would never know it. We need more massage therapists.

My first treatment, a thirty-minute Swedish-based relaxation massage, was the bodywork equivalent of a California roll: simple, satisfying, but nothing fancy or even remotely exotic. Just total comfort. The room was softly lit, the dimness lending a veneer of character and warmth to the decorative glass bowls and pyramids of folded towels placed upon the cabinets and shelves. The table was warm, the linens fresh and crisp, and soothing guitar music played just above a whisper. And my therapist, a woman positively committed to her craft, spoke in a voice as sincere and knowing as her hands.

I enjoyed the thirty-minute appointment so much that I immediately booked another for the following month with the same therapist.

Then I booked another.

And then another.

Massage felt so good that I upped the time to sixty minutes and started going every other week. By my fifth appointment my true personality took over, and massage became an all-consuming obsession. It was all I could think about. Time stopped for the hour I was on the table, and once it was over, I couldn’t imagine having to wait two more weeks until my next appointment. This, more than anything, is why I say no to drugs.

Perhaps it was the engineer in me, or maybe I’m just a chore of a person, but suddenly, after not speaking at all during my first few sessions, I was all questions.

“Okay, what are you doing there?” I asked my therapist as she worked her thumbs into my shoulder.

“What I’m doing now is breaking down these adhesions in your muscle tissue,” she explained, “and before that I was warming up and loosening the fascia and superficial muscles to work the deeper adhesions more effectively.” And it sounded so relaxing.

“What are adhesions?” I asked.

Adhesions weren’t exactly bad, she explained, as they were the result of a normally functioning muscular system trying to heal and protect itself. But they were not something you’d want, as they restrict the flow of oxygenated blood into the muscle.

“Do you remember injuring these muscles at some point?” she asked, applying a little more pressure to my shoulder.

Without even trying, my mind flashed to a number of culpable instances: hoisting my daughter into the air and feeling something pop and tear; flying over the handlebars of my mountain bike and colliding with a tree; the incredible sled-jumping incident of ’97 which rendered
my shoulder useless for a month during my sophomore year of college, when I was old enough to know better.

Surprisingly, these significant injuries were only the tip of the iceberg. The real damage to my shoulder, back, and neck muscles had been occurring slowly over decades, and showed no signs of stopping.

Typing at a computer six to ten hours a day, playing the saxophone three or four hours at a time, playing the drums, hunching over in my car on the daily commute, carrying my laptop bag on the same shoulder, writing all hook-armed like a lobster. These are the activities that wreak havoc on our muscles, and we do them mindlessly, habitually, every day. Muscles are designed for motion, not holding static positions, and when we misuse our muscles we invite opportunities for injury.

If continual, moderate use was the key to healthy muscles, then my mouth was clearly the healthiest part of my body. No tension there, my therapist must have thought as I nattered on. In the course of conversation, though, I learned lots of interesting facts about what’s happening inside our bodies while we go about our business in complete oblivion.

I learned, for example, that our bodies respond to minor tears in our muscle tissue by rushing new fibers to the scene. These fibers, my therapist explained, are applied to the tear like Band-Aids to facilitate healing. But the body doesn’t send one or two Band-Aids, it apparently sends truckloads of them. Compounding the effect, our repetitive human nature lends itself to continual injury of a particular muscle, and our bodies respond by layering more fibers upon those that were already there. So, over time, the muscle tissue accrues a considerable amount of excess fibers, and that is what forms the adhesions which inhibit blood flow.

Fascinating, I thought, instinctually reaching for a notebook to jot all this down.

I learned that normal muscle fibers follow the direction of the muscle, whereas fibers used to repair trauma are deposited in different directions across the tissue; as a result, that part of the muscle does not function the same as healthy tissue. I learned that the process of breaking down adhesions amounts to loosening and flushing out those excess fibers, which can take a long time. And I learned that a good therapist can positively identify these tough patches in the tissue simply by how the muscle feels, and then start to break them down through deliberate manipulation.

As for the adhesions in my shoulder? They could have been caused by anything, and so my therapist suggested some exercises to try at home and at the office to keep the everything loose. I thanked her, knowing I would never marshall the discipline to actually do those things, then continued a line of questioning so persistent it could have been written by a six-year-old.

“What part of your hand are you using to work it out?” It was her fingertips, not her thumbs.

“Why does it seem to hurt as you get closer to the bone?” She answered, explaining the difference between muscle and connective tissue while I chattered away.

“How many bones are in a human foot?”

“What’s the difference between muscle and fascia?”

“What is a ligament? I mean, like, really?”

And on it went, for close to half an hour, my therapist answering all of my questions in soothing tones, without even pausing to think: Twenty-six; Fascia envelops your muscles; It holds your bones together.

It may not have been the scintillating dialog of an epic novel, but as conversations go, I couldn’t have asked for better.

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