In today's society, speed is treated as a most enviable quality. This is why we often react in a hostile way when confronted with a marked or even voluntary slowness.
Have you ever been treated by a health specialist (doctor, physiotherapist, osteopath or massage therapist) and wondered if all that slowness is necessary or if they were just stretching your treatment to fill the time?
Well, the answer is that it is indeed necessary and justifiable. Whether it is to bypass the muscular stretching reflexes, for its effect on the nervous system or for the specificity of the different techniques, slowness has more than one use, especially in massage therapy.
At the neuro-muscular level
The muscular system, properly designed as it is, is composed of several contraction mechanisms; some are voluntary, others are involuntary.
One of these mechanisms is the monosynaptic stretch reflex. The muscle is composed of receptors located in the tendon and at the neuromuscular fiber itself, which evaluate the force and elongation applied to the muscle fibers.
These receptors are involved in the stretch reflex in question by sending a signal to a single neuron located in the spinal cord which, in turn, commands a contraction of the same muscle. This contraction is intended to protect the muscle from a possible tear of the muscle fibers following a stretch or an excessive load.
Although it achieves its goal brilliantly, this primitive system is poorly adapted to the therapeutic intervention of a foreign body, as in a therapeutic massage situation. The defense system is redundant as the body is being subjected to controlled forces by a professional whose effect is purely beneficial.
During any massage therapy treatment, your therapist will do his or her best to avoid these contractions, as they counteract the work being done and sometimes reverse the progress achieved with the intervention that precedes them.
The best way to avoid these stretch reflexes is to perform the maneuvers at a slow speed. Also, the deeper the targeted muscles are, the slower the speed should be, since these muscles are composed mostly of type A fibers. As they contract more slowly and with more endurance than type B fibers, type A fibers have a proportionally slower rate of relaxation.
The slowness therefore serves to avoid reactive muscle contractions, and the deeper the muscle targeted, the more pronounced the slowness must be.
On the brain
An often underestimated and misunderstood element of massage is that, although massage is aimed at a muscular or even deeper intervention, it necessarily passes through the skin.
It is easy to forget how the skin is filled with all kinds of neural sensors that feel pressure, temperature, skin stretch or even vibration. All these sensors make the skin an important extension of our nervous system that operates around the brain. The skin acts as a medium that allows your therapist to "massage your brain".
The message that we decide to send to the brain can take many forms and slowness is one of the most influential parameters of it.
We know that massage therapy is a powerful relaxant, both muscular and psychological, in general, but certain muscle activation massages that must be performed at a frantic pace have the opposite effect of waking up the client. Often the difference between these protocols is simply the speed of execution.
A massage performed slowly will help the client to shift into a parasympathetic nervous state that is associated with recovery and repair of the body. This state is an important tool for your therapist because it increases your pain tolerance and decreases your overall muscle tone, allowing him or her to perform techniques in a more muscular manner before encountering a reaction from your body (such as the monosynaptic stretch reflex, for example).
The effects that slow treatment has on the client's nervous system are many more than those documented above, but you will now know that a low speed of execution helps you fall into a nervous state that is conducive to your therapist's intervention.
Another factor that may lead your therapist to massage you slowly is the nature and function of the technique being performed at a specific time. Some techniques can only be performed at a slower pace, otherwise the desired action cannot be achieved.
One family of techniques that falls into this category is also one of the best tools a massage therapist can have against inflammation: drainage. Drainage is defined as a technique that is performed at a slow pace to evacuate body fluids (mainly blood and lymph) and the toxins they may contain towards the emunctories (lymph nodes).
Since we are acting here on the different blood and lymphatic capillaries, we must follow the rules of fluid physics.
I am far from trying to give you a lecture in physics, but basically, a liquid in a pipe can travel at a maximum speed determined by the diameter of the pipe. Since capillaries are microscopic in diameter, the velocity is also quite small. Going faster does not allow fluids to travel far enough.
Other techniques must be performed during exhalation for various reasons, and thus their speed is dictated by the client's breathing pattern.
Once again, you can appreciate how your therapist takes many factors into account that you might not think of during your treatments.
Maximizing the effect and number of therapeutic actions in the treatment, while avoiding stretch reflexes, coaxing your nervous system, respecting the protocols of the techniques and following your breathing is a battle your therapist fights against the clock every day.
We all benefit from stealing a page from the game of ancient Eastern civilizations and enjoying the slow pace every now and then. Perhaps this is one reason why they were so ahead of their time in the field of alternative medicine.
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Izaak Lavarenne, Physiotherapist NDG