Massage for Depression & Pain

-or- Chicken & Egg

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” ~ C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Recently I’ve had a couple of clients who have come to see me when there is definitely more going on than meets the eye. I’m not talking about anything life threatening, rather I am referring to an unexplained intensity of pain.

The vast majority of clients who come to see me in some form of physical discomfort or pain either have a long term history of dealing with a low level of background pain – I’ve a bad back, my neck always gives me grief – or who have some knowledge of what they have done – I crouched down to the dish washer when my calf went, I must have slept awkwardly because I woke with a terribly stiff neck. I would suggest that this work accounts for 90-95% of my ‘pain related’ work. The pain I’m writing about is quite different.

I actually had an instance recently when a client came to see me, and I could just tell something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it immediately, and having discussed that her neck was particularly bad that day, I knew it was related to that. Then I twigged why she ‘looked’ wrong … the pain was written all over her face, and was most obviously in her eyes. Despite her words I knew she was in agony.

When I was growing up I had seen both my parents struggle with sudden instances of extreme pain –crushed lumbar vertebrae and a slipped disc amongst the most dramatic instances! I knew what it looked like to be in that amount of pain and discomfort, but couldn’t relate to it. Then it happened to me … luckily in a less drastic way.

Over ten years ago I woke up one morning and just couldn’t move without extreme pain in my low back. The GP suggested I had a slipped disc for the ‘volume’ of pain and he suggested a scan and that I move as little as possible. I remember it would take me over half an hour to get dressed, I was in agony moving around, and car journeys with the uneven road surfaces would reduce me to tears. I was lucky, the scan revealed no spinal issues and was told I could move again … but now I’d locked solid. A combination of physiotherapy, massage and structural work got me going again, but for years I found my low back was a ‘barometer’ for how I was feeling – if I was low, stressed or had been moving too little it would grumble; then rumble; then, if I continued to ignore it, it would kick off in a hideous way. Never to the initial intensity, but even now I remember what that pain was like.

I couldn’t eat for the pain, it felt as though my brain couldn’t work properly, as though I’d short-circuited somehow. I remember trying to send my manager my latest sick note, and a few days later she called me to see how I was. She was concerned … turned out I’d sent her one of the dud attempts which I’d half scribbled out and had a shopping list on the back! Particularly gutting because it had taken me all morning to get the energy and wherewithal to walk to the post box, which shouldn’t have taken longer than 2 minutes round trip.

The veil of pain that can write all over the face or in the eyes is unmistakable. But what I didn’t know until recently is that “some research shows that pain and depression share common pathways in the limbic (emotional) region of the brain. In fact, the same chemical messengers control pain and mood.” Don’t get me wrong, not all pain is caused by depression and not all depression causes pain, but the few clients I have come across with “that look” are probably experiencing some form of lowering of their mood as a result of the severity of their pain.

when depression and physical pain coexist, it is important not to assume that the pain is “caused by” depression. A medical evaluation is essential in order to evaluate other possible illnesses that could cause these symptoms.”

I realise there are instances in my past where the C S Lewis quote at the top of this article I was probably guilty of doing what he writes about, and I’ve also had occasions when I’m aware clients might be doing the same thing. Conversely pain can cause an extraordinary reaction in the body which results in a distinct lowering of one’s spirits.

So, when I work with an awareness of the impact such discomfort can have on the body, whether it is sharp, intense and fresh or a background, low level of white noise, sometimes the session can have a profound, even if merely temporary, effect. The client who came in with ‘the neck’ left not only with an increase in range of movement and a vast reduction in pain, but her eyes looked clear and unstrained, she felt a lightness and joy again which she hadn’t realized was lacking, and generally looked as though she might actually skip down the street!

Massage is not a miracle worker, and a massage therapist is not a healer, but sometimes, just sometimes, a little bit of magic happens to transform someone’s day, week or life. No wonder I love my job!