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Self-Massage Reduces Stress and Helps Muscle Recovery

by Matt Weik

Who couldn’t use a massage? That being said, not everyone has the coin to drop on weekly massages. For that reason, I went out looking for an answer and found Dr. David Sol, DAc, Lac, LMT, CFMP, and Dean of Massage Programs at Pacific College of Health and Science. David is an expert when it comes to self-massage and I thought it would be invaluable to spend some time understanding how we all could utilize self-massage to reduce stress and help with muscle recovery.

Below is my interview with Dr. David Sol.

How would you define “self-massage?”
In general, “Self-Massage” is any form of manual or assisted soft-tissue manipulation for therapeutic or relaxation effects. This could include techniques involving pressing, squeezing, kneading, rubbing, vibrating, holding, and percussing. All these techniques can be performed by hand or using an assisted device. Basically, if you are applying these techniques to yourself, you are performing a self-massage.

Who could benefit from and should use self-massage?
Nearly anyone and everyone can benefit from self-massage if they don’t have any contraindications.  Some contraindications could include unregulated hypertension, systemic infections, pain from unknown origin or etiology, etc.

Why should people focus on reducing stress and improving muscle recovery?
Psychological stress has been linked to dysregulation of the immune system and increased levels of cortisol. Chronic stress causes increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines to be released which contribute to various chronic debilitating conditions, activation of latent infections, and overall wear-and-tear of the immune system. This can contribute to a poor quality of life and increased morbidity.

With increased pro-inflammatory responses and certain immune system activation, muscles do not recover as easily after activity and can also contribute to increased systemic inflammation.  This can lead to an increased risk of injury, development of a pain syndrome, or contribute to weakening the immune system.

When a person focuses on reducing stress and improving muscle recovery, they also focus on reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines, immune activation, and levels of cortisol. This not only leads to lower levels of pain and quicker recovery from activity, but to sleep better, have a more stable mood, and reduce your chance of injury.

How can self-massage help reduce stress and improve muscle recovery?
There are different aspects of how self-massage can be helpful. Some are indirect and others are more direct.

First, the actual act of taking time to focus on one’s self is alone very powerful. It requires a person to recognize that they matter, that they are important, and that they value themselves. It’s like giving ourselves a gift.

Second, along with acknowledging that we are important and taking care of ourselves, self-massage also requires us to slow down which also allows us to actually be in touch with our own bodies, our breath, and the various rhythms that are simultaneously present within us.  Like the effects of meditation, slowing down and being mindful through self-massage is another aspect of its positive effects on our mind and body.

Third, we acknowledge an internal locus of control.  We take responsibility for ourselves and our own levels of stress and provide ourselves with simple, yet powerful solutions to our own feelings of stress and tension.  It’s been shown that people with an internal locus of control have a better health outcome compared to those who rely on an external locus of control.

Fourth, the direct effects of self-massage focus on releasing muscle tension, increasing blood circulation, and decreasing pain all of which promote rest and relaxation.

How does self-massage compare to going and getting an actual massage?
Receiving a regular massage and performing self-massage is not really the same. With self-massage, a person is directly involved in performing the techniques. However, in receiving a massage, the recipient is generally passive and doesn’t perform the techniques on themselves. Additionally, self-massage can be limited to the areas that are most easily accessible to the person. For example, without an assisted device, it is relatively challenging for many to perform any meaningful soft-tissue manipulation to one’s own back especially the mid-back.

Self-massage is best performed to the shoulders, face, neck, arms, and legs. However, with application to the arms, it is limited to using one hand/arm to perform the techniques and may not be as effective as having someone else perform the techniques using two hands.

Yet, self-massage is something that can be performed by anyone to themselves at any time. So, the benefit of learning self-massage is much greater than just scheduling to receive a regular massage. It’s empowering to know how to relieve one’s own tension, stress, pain, and discomfort regardless of the time of day, access to a massage therapist, or financial considerations.

What are some self-massage techniques that people can use?
Some simple self-massage techniques that anyone can use are:

Press-and-Hold: Locate a tense or sore muscle and find the most tender point or area. Press the point or area with your finger pads and hold it down while taking a slow deep breath. Wait up to 60-90 seconds and continue to relax into the technique. After some time, a person should feel the muscle relaxing, the tension releasing, and the discomfort subsiding. This can be repeated one to two more times until the desired effect is achieved. One thing to note though is not to overdo it. If the area isn’t releasing anymore, let it alone and move on to another point or region of the body.

Park-and-Move: Like the Press-and-Hold technique but intended for less specific and more defused areas. First, gently press down with your fingers (not just the finger pads) and gently move the tissue underneath your hands in a circular motion.  That is, stay in one area without moving your hand from where it is “parked”, move only the skin under your hand and the muscles below the skin.  This will increase circulation, reduce discomfort and tension.

Rub: Again, like the Park-and-Move technique, but this time, you rub over the surface of the skin and move your hand over the area without “parking” in one location.  This technique creates some friction and warmth while increasing surface circulation and relieving tension and pain.

Squeeze-and-Hold: For muscles that you can grasp and squeeze easily, such as the upper arm, shoulder, or calf muscle, a person can gently grasp, squeeze and hold the muscle while consciously breathing in and out.  This too can be held for a count of 60-90 seconds.  The muscle ought to begin to release any tension and have an increase of circulation and range of motion.

Squeeze Knead: Like the Squeeze-and-Hold, a person will grasp a muscle, gently squeeze it, and now while grasping the muscle move it in a circular motion while moving up and down the muscle with your hand. In other words, grasp and squeeze the muscle starting near one end, gently move it in a circular motion; then, release the grasp and move the hand further down the muscle to a new part of the soft-tissue. Grasp, squeeze, and move the muscle again. Continue in this fashion until you move through the entire muscle belly. Repeat 2-3 more times if desired. This will relax the muscle, increase blood circulation, and reduce discomfort and tension.

Tapping/Percussion: Make a loose fist and gently tap/percuss a sore muscle with the finger side of your hand (action is similar to knocking on a door).  Make sure to have a “spring-like” action with your loose fist to protect your wrist joint and remain gentle with your tapping.  This will invigorate the area and release any tension when performed with moderate to light pressure.

Stretch: No self-massage would be complete without performing gentle stretches. These depend on the area of the body. However, basically, using one hand holds down one end of the body such as one shoulder, and move the head in the opposite direction away from that shoulder. This will elongate the muscle, and release tension.

Are there any affordable tools or devices you would recommend people purchase for their home?
There are many various products on the market.  Some are useful, others are not.  A simple “tool” to use is a tennis ball.   While standing with your back against the wall, slide a tennis ball to one side or the other of your spine along the long, vertical muscles that run parallel to your vertebrae.  Gently, press your back toward the ball and wall.  This will provide pressure and an ability to treat your own sore back muscles.  You can then move your body in an upward and downward motion such as a squat while pressing against the ball and wall.  In this way, you can release any tension in the muscles and provide yourself some instant relief.

Additionally, there are several different rollers, thumpers/tappers, and vibrating gadgets. Some can be helpful. Ultimately, as long as they allow you to reach the area of discomfort and apply pressure and some movement under your control, they can be useful.

Are there any tools or devices people should stay away from that are dangerous or simply don’t work?
As a layperson, I would refrain from electronic devices or other devices that don’t let you have full control of how much pressure, you are receiving.

How often should you implement self-massage?
Depends on your own goals and needs.  A person could give themselves a gentle self-massage daily if they wanted. The more often the better as long as the person is in tune with their body and doesn’t force anything.  If daily is too much, then at least once to three times a week.

Are there any drawbacks or can you ever do it too often to the point it can become a problem or cause issues?
Yes, like anything, moderation is the key to happiness and success.  If providing yourself self-massage causes more stress, tension, or pain, it is counterproductive.  Additionally, if the technique you are using is causing lasting muscle soreness or pain, the pressure or technique is too much or inappropriate at the time.

Ultimately, a person ought to feel their own bodies while they give themselves self-massage, and intuitively adjust their pressure, technique, or amount of treatments they give themselves.

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