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Massage for the win: a happy (but weird) personal anecdote

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Today I have a personal story about massage banishing a nasty pain.

“Random” stabs and throbs are a major feature of my ongoing struggle with chronic pain and illness. I think of them as random because they seem to have nothing to do with anything. These are not sore thighs after leg-day at the gym (though I get those in spades too). They never make sense.

Today it was a pulsing ache on the outside of my left biceps, first noticed after breakfast. I did not hit my arm, or exercise it; there are no old injuries there either. It was impervious to position or movement, and the location didn’t waver. It just hurt.

Like I said: random.

By midday it had developed into a pulse, rhythmic swells of deep aching that crested about once every 10 seconds, weird and vivid, but not especially intense. I am used to this kind of thing. I paid no heed until I tried to take a nap — desperately needed after a poor night of sleep.

The pain became as impossible to ignore as the thumping bass of a neighbour’s stereo. I tossed and turned and stretched and squirmed. I did deep breathing exercises. I tried to distract myself with mental chores.

The waves of pain just kept rolling in. I had no hope of falling asleep.

Massage powers… activate!

I rubbed the area vigorously, a blustery and scattershot style, rapid squeezing and prodding at medium intensity — like nothing you’d ever experience in a massage therapist’s office. It wasn’t careful or expert, it wasn’t even focused. I just generated a lot of sensation.

The massage was brief, too, probably less than two minutes. Honestly, it seemed about as likely to work as prayer or homeopathy.

The pain stopped like it was electric and I had pulled its plug. It simply vanished. There wasn’t another pulse after that, not even one, not even a faint echo. It was over, as clear as the end of a nasty bout of hiccoughs.

It did not come back, and I got to nap. Victory!

Okay, it was self-massage of my arm, not someone else working on my leg…but this was the most appropriate stock photography I had lying around.

This isn’t the first time massage has achieved this for me

It’s not even the tenth or twentieth. I have seen something more or less exactly like this at least a few times per year for many years now.

It doesn’t work on all the pains I get. It doesn’t even work on half of them. And it doesn’t always work this clearly.

But sometimes it does, and it has been at least a partial victory on many occasions. And while I can’t tell a good story about the partial victories, I still remember them fondly.

Why did it work? What happened here?

I am not attributing the pain to any mechanism, or my success to my technique. I could say that it was a “trigger point” that I banished with my magic hands, and I could wave my hands and make it sound somewhat plausible. I could say the relief was a simple case of “gating” the pain, and that seem like a safer hypothesis, but it’s not really much better.?

The brain isn’t great at sensory multitasking, and so pain can be temporarily pre-empted by other sensations, via the “gate control” mechanism: a real effect, but minor and fleeting. But you can read this 1981 paper by Melzack (a giant in pain research) speculating specifically not only about pain gating having a lasting effect (might have been a bit of a reach)… but a lasting effect on trigger point pain specifically (reaching quite a bit further).

I don’t know what causes a pain like that (especially when it’s a member of a large, extended family of similar pains cropping up all the time like brush fires). And I don’t know why massage so clearly seemed to help it. But “help” it did. I had a pain, I rubbed the area like I was having fun kneading bread dough, and the pain stopped. That’s it.

Not explaining it, just reporting it. It’s “just an anecdote,” but experiences like this have a lot to do with why I am still interested in massage as a pain treatment, after all these years, and after so much skepticism and, yes, even a lot of cynicism.

Something therapeutically interesting happened to me, no doubt about that in my mind.

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