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The Autonomic Nervous System - Re-balancing Through Therapeutic Massage

by Guest Blogger, Beatrice Carlson Bumbacher, LMT, MLD-C, C.A.,

Owner and Founder BeAwareHealthMassageTherapy, Cumming/GA, located inside Life Balance Atlanta, Cumming/GA.

Introduction and Research

Jackie Allen asked me to explain in my guest blog how massage stimulates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The nervous system is a vast and complex network involved in every aspect of how the body responds to its environment, including physical and psychological responses to massage therapy.

Several studies have explored how spinal cord reflexes respond to different treatments and pressures. These studies found that massage influenced spinal cord response. It is exciting to think rather than just affecting surface tissues, massage is influencing the very core of the nervous system.

Research in this area focuses on how massage increases relaxation and reduces stress, and decreases anxiety and depression. Some studies examine the effects of massage on neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that control neurologic functions. Examples of neurotransmitters are endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Endorphins reduce pain. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite, sleep, memory, learning, and muscle contraction. Dopamine helps regulate heart rate and blood pressure and indirectly affects pituitary function and muscle movements.

If massage has an effect on neurotransmitters, it stands to reason that massage would have direct effects on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), lowering heart rate and reducing blood pressure. Moreover, massage has been shown to directly affect brain wave activity and assist in those with sleep disorders, whether from decreases in pain, depression, or anxiety, or from increased relaxation.

Anatomy of Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems

The spinal cord together with the brain belongs to the Central Nervous System (CNS). It is named for its relative position since it occupies a central or medial position in the body. It is one of the two parts of the nervous system. The other part is the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is made up of cranial and spinal nerves that branch off from the spinal cord (part of the CNS) and extend to all parts of the body.

Subdivision of the PNS

a) Somatic Nervous System (SoNS)

The SoNS transmits signals primarily to skeletal muscles but also includes joints and receptors of special senses, such as vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It is largely voluntary because most responses can be consciously controlled. There are exceptions, such as reflexes, which are involuntary.

b) Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The ANS transmits signals primarily to visceral organs, such as the heart and lungs. Through these innervations, the ANS regulates heart and respiration rates, blood circulation, gastrointestinal activity, and metabolism in ways that help maintain homeostasis. This is an involuntary system because most responses cannot be consciously controlled. There are exceptions such as breathing which can be consciously controlled.

Divisions within the ANS. The ANS contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions, each possessing complementary responses.

The sympathetic division controls energy expenditure and the parasympathetic division controls energy conservation. I find the complementary responses fascinating because it means for example, if nerves in the sympathetic division increase heart rate, nerves in the parasympathetic division return it to a resting heart rate. The nervous system is made up of billions of cells and can certainly be studied as an entire subject by its own.

Because its cells begin in the thoracolumbar division – the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spinal cord - the sympathetic nervous system is said to have a thoracolumbar outflow. Owing to its location, the parasympathetic system is commonly referred to as having "craniosacral outflow", which stands in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system.

Neurologic Pathologies

In the following I am listing a few of the more common pathologies and conditions of the nervous system. Most of the time they are not a contraindication for massage therapy, but it is important that a Massage Therapist familiarizes him or herself with the condition and makes necessary massage modifications while treating a client:

  • Alzheimer Disease; Anxiety Disorders; Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Bell Palsy; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Depression; Double Crush Syndrome; Herniated and Bulging Disks; Multiple Sclerosis (MS); Parkinson Disease; Sciatica, Seizure Disorders; Thoracic, Outlet Syndrome; Trigeminal Neuralgia.

Summary of the Benefits of Massage Therapy on the Nervous System

  • Increase serotonin

  • Increase dopamine

  • Decrease nervous system excitability

  • Improve sleep

  • Decrease stress, depression, and anxiety

  • Increase relaxation

  • Influence brain wave activity

  • Improve cognitive and memory functioning

  • Activate parasympathetic response


5th edition Massage Therapy, Principles and Practice, Susan G. Salvo

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