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Therapeutic massage

What is therapeutic massage?
You're stressed out. Your shoulder muscles have turned to rocks. Or you feel so jumpy you could crawl out of your own skin. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone could smooth away your tension with the touch of his or her hands?

Someone probably can. Research shows that the simple kneading and stroking of a good massage can make a big difference in your mental and physical health.

Just one session can reduce stress and help you get a good night's sleep. Regular sessions may ease chronic pain, speed recovery from many sports injuries, make your muscles more supple, and improve concentration. With more than a dozen types of therapeutic massage to choose from, chances are good that you'll find a rub that's right for you.

What does treatment involve?
It depends on the type of massage you've chosen. At the start of a Swedish massage--and most other types--your therapist will brief you on what to expect, ask about any particular problems you're having, and then leave you alone for a few minutes, so you can undress (you can usually keep your underwear on if you want to). Afterward, you'll lie facedown on the massage table and drape yourself with a towel or sheet. After a few minutes, the therapist will knock on the door to see if you're ready. Many massage therapists use some type of oil or lotion to reduce the friction between your skin and their hands. They may also play soft music and turn down the lights or burn candles to help you relax. During the massage itself, don't be afraid to speak up if your therapist is using too much or too little pressure. It's his (or her) job to make you feel good. At the end of the session, the therapist will leave the room so you can get dressed.

How does it work?
Researchers believe that massage works in at least three ways. For starters, all that kneading and stroking allows your muscles to relax, which sends a message to your brain to produce fewer stress hormones; it also improves blood flow to the brain. The combination, studies show, results in a feeling of relaxed alertness. Massage may ease chronic pain as well, perhaps, researchers speculate, by triggering the release of enkephalins, the body's natural painkillers.

Massage isn't just for adults, either. A groundbreaking study showed that when trained parents gave their hospitalized, premature babies a firm, 15-minute massage three times a day, the babies gained weight more quickly and went home earlier than unrubbed preemies.

How safe is it?
Massage is generally quite safe, but be sure you let your therapist know if there are any areas of your body that are especially tense or tender. It's also a good idea to talk to your doctor about medical conditions that might rule out a massage, including high blood pressure (a massage can briefly cause your blood pressure to rise) and a history of blood clots (deep, high-pressure strokes could cause an embolism).

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