You don’t need a chill pill

Every time someone new visits Alvino Massage, you fill out an intake form. This arduous task asks about what you do, your aches and pains and various physical activities you undertake. My favorite line on this form is “What do you do to relieve stress?”

The parade of answers varies as much as the people who visit. Most people do some sort of physical activity to relax, be it running, working out, or aikido. Others focus their energies on creative outlets like playing music or painting. Still others just like to watch television or play video games.

And a good chunk of people just enjoy a nice glass of red wine.

Of course, massage is a popular answer.

Are you looking to relieve stress on your own? My teacher was a proponent of breathing. He would remind us to stop “shallow chest breathing” and get in the habit of deep belly breaths. This helps get your body out of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “fight-or-flight”.

Other helpful activities include laughter, hydration and simply sitting back and doing nothing.

Personally, I take a page from the silly poster my dad used to have up in the house. The poster was of a monkey and had the Satchel Paige quote, “Sometimes, I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” This mental break gives me the moments I need to organize my thoughts, my life, and to dream big.

Still need other ideas? Dance. Hot tub. Cook. Spend time with friends and family. Play chess. Enjoy nature. Walk a dog. Meditate. Take a nap. Or just take a deep breath.

Where are they now? Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

“Doctor, doctor, I keep having these dreams where I’m a fish… and I’m swimming toward the light,” said the patient. The doctor carefully considered the situation. “Don’t you worry,” he said, “You just have carp-in-tunnel syndrome.”

The tragedy in that bad joke was that I actually wrote it… back in 1992.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was all the rage; everybody who was anybody was getting it. By 1995, there were surgeries and specialists. By Y2K, we had special split keyboards and funny looking computer pointers.

Today, I have a mouse, a straight keyboard and a wrist pad. I hardly hear a peep about Carpal Tunnel.

Carpal tunnel syndrome didn’t go away, it was just misunderstood from the start.

The carpals are eight little bones around your palm and wrist. The tunnel is created by two of these bones and a bridge like sheath that spans the base of your thumb to the opposite base of your palm by your pinkie. The bridge-like sheath is called a retinaculum.Several ligaments pass through this tunnel, as does the median nerve. The ligaments attach to the muscles that flex your fingers.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is the compression of the median nerve and causes pain, numbness and paresthesia (aka ‘my hand fell asleep’). Most of the causes of CTS are unknown, but when scientists and doctors apply a reason, it’s generally something like obesity, hypothyroidism, arthritis, diabetes, or maybe trauma…

What we used to call Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was most likely bursitis, tendonitis or some other –itis that business, people, ergonomics, keyboards, stretching and massage have helped alleviate. It’s amazing what can happen when you step away from the keyboard for a while, or take a few minutes to stretch.

If you still have problems, let your massage therapist know! It’s really easy for us to massage the tips of your finger to the edge of the shoulder, and hit all the achy places in between to help you out.

What is a rotator cuff?

A common move in volleyball warm-ups is to toss the volleyball around. From an outsider’s perspective, it may look as if a group of adults is playing an extremely passive game of hot potato. Generally, this slow game starts with a gentle over hand toss. It evolves in to a double arm, overhead throw. After 10 minutes, somebody gets bored and starts bumping the ball.

What are they doing? They’re warming up their shoulder. Specifically, they are warming up the rotator cuff. Contrary to popular belief, the rotator cuff is not one thing;it’s a group of muscles that work together to rotate the shoulder and abduct the arm. In school, we remember them by the acronym S.I.T.S. That’s Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Subscapularis.

The volleyball players warm up their shoulder to try and help avoiding particular injuries. Most commonly rotator cuff tears, tendonitis, impingement, frozen shoulder and bursitis. Unfortunately, after many of these conditions set in, you will need the help of a medical professional to get back on track. To try to avoid surgery or lengthy physical therapy sessions, it’s important to strengthen and take care of your shoulders.

Massage can certainly compliment your healthy shoulder routine. A little attention to a few of these muscles goes a long way. Almost any standard technique, be it gentle Swedish Massage or Deep Tissue, can help eliminate the knots that have built up. Advanced stretching routine and acupressure help tremendously as well. If you already have a problem, have your physical therapist or doctor write down what they want your massage therapist to do. The results can be amazing.

Welcome to my Lumborum-torium

Halloween has past. The kiddies are dividing up their candy at school. There are endless mounds of leftover fun size Almond Joy at work. So, why are you still moving slowly, like Quasimodo lumbering?

It could be your Quadratus Lumborum. Commonly known as the “QL”, this muscle connects your lower back vertebrae and your bottom rib to your pelvis. You use the QL in many everyday activities. The primary functions are side bending at your trunk and straightening your spine. Your QL is also active in stabilizing your lower back.

Aggravating your QL is pretty easy to do. Lifting heavy object will aggravate it, especially if you are twisting while lifting. Symptoms include difficulty turning over in bed, consistent pain in the lower back, hips, glutes, etc. People report sharp pain while standing and walking. Even sneezing can make you think you have a pinched nerve.

Helping yourself avoid the problem is pretty straight forward. If you are in a situation where you are doing a lot of lifting, practice those safe lifting techniques that you’ve been taught (bend at the knees, wear a back support belt.) There are simple every day practices that can help as well. Sit down when you put on your pants in the morning. Don’t sit on your wallet. Even the process of sitting down can be eased by slowing the process down.

If there is already a problem, there are some simple stretches you can find online.

During your massage, the QL is relatively easy to palpate. It lies half way between your ribs and your pelvis. Gentle rocking of your lower back, direct pressure and working related muscles generally does the trick. Your massage therapist should also consider the piriformis, glutes, abdominals and the iliopsoas (aka the Tebowing muscle).

In short, when you are “Quasimodo Lumbering” (QL) think Quadratus Lumborum (also coincidentally QL). It’s not something you have to live with.

A tale of two calves: The story of the distal heart

The tale of two calves is as old as time. Greek history tells of Pheidippedes, the messenger who ran from a town called Marathon to Athens. Pheidippedes had two calves. Before he even contemplated building an ark and collecting animals, even Noah had two calves. In more modern times, Douglas MacArthur once boldly proclaimed, “I shall return.” When he did, it was on the strength of two calves.

One thing these men had in common? At the end of the day, their calves were pretty darn sore.

When people come in for a massage, they often are surprised by how sore their calf muscles are. Athletes constantly stretch their calf muscles by pulling their toes up. More often than not, they do this straight legged. Did you know that this only stretches one of the two muscles that make up the calves?

The Gastrocnemius (gastroc) is the muscle you see. It is the upside down heart shaped one that attaches to the heel. This muscle is used when you flex your ankles; be it run, jump, or stand on your tip toes to reach the coffee grounds in the morning. When you pull your toes back straight legged, you are stretching your gastroc.

The Soleus muscle is the hidden muscle you don’t see. The soleus is a happy little helper to the gastroc when your knee is bent. The main function of the soleus is to help you not fall forward when you are standing up.

In tandem, these two muscles help you run, jump, skip and dance. Teacher Jim used to remind us of another function… the distal heart. The soleus is responsible for pumping venous blood back to the heart. Literally, the calves act as a relay station to keep your blood moving.

Taking care of your calves is important. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about gentle straight leg or bent knee stretches you can do before exercise. Water intake and diet may also affect your general muscle health. There are tools, such as foam rollers, that you can use when you are between massage visits.

When you are in for a massage and we do find a knot, there are several techniques we can incorporate to help. Aggressive deep tissue can be effective, but uncomfortable. Gentle, longer strokes are great if you come in for regular sessions.

Rest assured, there are steps you can take to minimize the calf muscle abnormalities. Don’t let the knots in your legs declare, “I shall return”!

Battlestar Sciatica

In the TV series from the late 70’s, Battlestar Galactica introduced us to humans spread across the universe. One of the fearless leaders, Lieutenant Starbuck lead the rebellion against a huge pain in the region; the Cylons. In any given week, a customer will walk in to Alvino Massage, lead by a large cup of Starbucks. They complain of a new pain that has spread over a large part of their lower region. They call this Sciatica.

Sciatica is often blamed for many aches people are having. It is also frequently misunderstood. The sciatic nerve is very large. It runs from the lower back and through your buttocks and down your leg. This nerve transmits nerve impulses to nearly the entire part of your lower body: Your skin, the muscles in your thighs, lower legs and even your feet. It is responsible for the movement and feeling for most of your leg muscles.

If you are experiencing constant pain in only one side of your leg or buttock, a pain that is worse when you are sitting, you may be experiencing sciatica. Other symptoms may include burning, weakness or numbness, or a sharp pain when you stand. Like Cylons, sciatica may also be source of the constant pain in your butt.

Some of the causes are very serious. From a herniated disk in your lumbar to infection to degenerative disks, professional medical attention should be sought for proper diagnosis. Other times, sciatica may be caused by tight muscles pinching the nerve, pregnancy, scar tissue or muscle strains. Basically, sciatica is not a disorder, it is a symptom of another problem involving the nerve.

Depending on the cause, massage can help. At home, you can ask someone to gently massage the lower part of your back. Heat and ice may help as well. The combination of gentle pressure to the back of your leg after a warm bath may be just your ticket. And as always, explain to your therapist as precisely as possible, and they can address the soft tissue in the area. Some extra attention to your glutes and piriformis may be just what you need.

In the TV series, they used phrases like “Golmonging Daggit” to express dissatisfaction, which is eerily similar to what I hear people say. Don’t fret; time and patience generally solves most sciatica problems. If the aforementioned methods don’t help, if the pain lasts longer than you think it should, and if the pain gets worse… call a doctor!

A nice belly rub

As many of you know, I draw inspiration for most of the newsletter from my everyday life. Often, many of you are going through similar issues. That’s where many topics such as posture, ergonomics, sports massage have come from. Many times, there is a specific problem that somebody I know is working with.

Today, it’s a harmonic convergence. Clients have been talking about this. A few people benefitted from this. And our cat, Mana Mana, was the final vote on this month’s topic. This morning, he jumped on the bed and flipped over for his daily belly rub.

Funny, the clues you pick up from the animal kingdom. Most domestic beasties love to get pet. Their low guttural rumblings prove beyond a doubt that a relaxing Swedish Massage is awesome. Therapeutic Deep Tissue works on pets, too. They are patient while I work out knots and trigger points. Just like people, they lightly complain with a nip at pressure.

Then why would we ignore their favorite massage of all? The belly rub!

Alas, we are all too aware of our midsection. In school, all therapists are taught stomach techniques. In the gym, everybody works for that six pack. Somewhere in between, we get shy. We don’t want our stomachs touched.

Abdominal massage certainly will help your digestive system. Gentle strokes in a clockwise manner will help greatly (Trust me here, clockwise only!)

Another thing about your abdomen; there isn’t much skeletal support. Your shoulders, legs, even back is mostly supported by bone. In your midsection, you are supported by a six pack (in my case, a pony keg!). Your abs, psoas, and other core stabilizing muscle can use attention, too.

Athletes can benefit from massaging the diaphragm. Heck, anything that encourage deeper breathing benefits just about anyone. Working your diaphragm, and possibly some of the muscles in your ribs, the “intercostals”, can help achieve tremendous results.

Don’t worry, I’ve learned many lessons about abdominal massage. The lessons learned in massage school varied greatly between the United States and Thailand. Possibly the greatest lesson was from the cat: Abdominal massage for no more than three minutes, or else he claws and bites!

How massage reduces anxiety

Any good friend or massage therapist will tell that if you’re stressed, you should get a massage. That special person you cozy up with on the couch might rub your shoulders when they recognize you are anxious. Does it really work? Why does it work? Is there any actual research to back up these claims?

Research points to the reduction of cortisol as the key. Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal gland and helps your body in many ways. It is often elevated in every day stressful situations to help your body cope with intense situations. However, chronic stress leads to prolonged increases in cortisol levels. This can lead to negative effects in the body such as slowed cognitive abilities.

Multiple studies have found that measures of cortisol levels decreased in people after regular massage sessions. The studies also found that massage can help the body obtain a more balanced level of other biochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. One study, “Depression and Anxiety”, states stress levels were lower after massage, as they were after other similar relaxation techniques.

What does this mean in plain English? Massages can calm you down. Massage can help your body get out of the fight or flight response. As well as slow the production of cortisol, massage also helps produce the chemicals that are good for the body during non-emergency situations. If you are experiencing chronic stress, like many of us are, massage is one of many ways to relax and rejuvenate yourself.

The Reflex

Lately, many people have come to Alvino Massage in Denver asking if I know anything about Reflexology.

Basically, Reflexology is the practice of applying pressure to certain parts of the feet, hands or ears in order to effect physical ailments elsewhere in your body. China and Egypt have the earliest traces of this practice. In 1913, Dr. William Fitzgerald introduced the concept to the United States.

Through the use of charts (pictured above), a therapist applies various compression and strokes to help the afflicted area. My teacher, Jim, showed us a very simple way to remember the chart. Imagine imposing an image of the human body over an image of the feet (pictured left). All of the points relating to your head (brains, nose, glands, etc) are in your big toes. Your spine is represented by the line inside of your inside foot. All of your organs are neatly aligned on either side of your spine.

Does it work?

Teacher Jim put it this way; There is a theory that twisting the little toe can cause the cervix to open up slightly. The thought is it helps make the birthing process more simple. Humans have spent thousands of years walking barefoot and stubbing their toes at midnight on the counter. If we were really that fragile, the human race wouldn’t have made it so long.

What I do know for a fact: If I plug the Christmas tree and ten other things to the same outlet, sometimes the power goes out. I know there is a magic switch on the back of my house that I can flip to make the lights go back on. To me, Reflexology is like playing the piano. I understand the concept and know exactly where the keys are, I just don’t yet understand how to press them to make lovely music.

On the other hand, nothing beats a good foot rub!

The physical manifestation of emotional stress

At Alvino Massage in Denver, it is very important to find out what a person is looking for before we start your treatment. Before we start your massage, I ask where you would like me to focus. The vast majority of the time, people will say, “I carry all my stress…” and point to a part of their body. Generally, people point to their neck or their shoulders. Sometimes, you will point to the lower part of your back.

I carry my stress in my shoulders. What does that really mean? Can one get angry at work and store it away in little stress bladders that are strategically located in the neck? Is it an anatomical function like a lymph node or the gallbladder?

There are studies out there that will explain how your hypothalamus pituitary adrenals are activated releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine to your body. To be quite frank, big words like that scare me.

Maybe there is a simpler explanation.

Have you ever heard the philosophy “Dress for Success”? The thought that if you look good, then you feel good, and if you feel good, you perform well? I think “carrying stress” is a similar, though wholly opposite, concept.

Think about it. When you become stressed, you hang your head. The posture you practice so well is gone for a time. When you sit in front of your computer, carrying your head forward is easier than using the proper ergonomics our companies teach. Your body doesn’t like it when you use it in ways it’s not expecting. So, the muscles in your back and your neck have to work a little harder to keep everything aligned. Prolonged periods of time in this position will cause an ache in your neck. Same type of thing will happen when you are not sitting upright.

Teacher Jim used to talk about such physical manifestations often. He used to tell us the easiest way to combat such stress was to simply take a deep breath and to “let it go”. This is a practice I still employ to this day.

Maybe, there is something to this whole “carry your stress” notion. Breathe. Straighten up. Walk tall and proud. If this still doesn’t work for you, stop by and I’ll rub your neck a bit.