A Healing Touch: Massage Therapy and HIV/AIDS
Anyone who has ever had a massage can vouch for the relaxing, peaceful, and sometimes invigorating effects a good massage can have. People living with HIV/AIDS have touted the benefits of massage for years, claiming it has helped with everything from stress reduction to increased T cells.
But the benefits of massage are not merely anecdotal. The Touch Research Institute of the University of Miami has conducted numerous studies on the various benefits of massage therapy and its effects on a large spectrum of individuals. Among the studies are three that are of specific interest to people living with HIV/AIDS.
The first study, in 1996, involved 29 HIV-positive men and showed that a majority of the individuals receiving massages had improvement in immune system function, both in the number of natural killer cells and in the activity of those cells. As a result of this evidence that massage therapy can build the immune system, two more studies ensued.
The second study was done on nine healthy female medical students in the middle of exam period. Not only did the students report reduced anxiety, but blood samples taken before and after the massage showed that five had a substantial increase in white blood cell numbers and in the activity of natural killer cells.
The third study involved 20 breast cancer patients, divided into two groups. One group watched relaxation tapes and the other received massage therapy 3 times a week for 5 weeks. The patients who received massage therapy showed an 80 percent improvement in immune system function. Of the group who watched the tapes, only 30 percent had any improvement. These studies reaffirm that massage can facilitate the improvement of immune system function.
Researchers and scientists cannot entirely agree on how massage therapy improves immune system function, but there are many theories. Michael Ruff, an immunologist and professor at Georgetown University Medical School, believes that massage works by reducing stress, and thereby alleviating the wear and tear inflicted by stress hormones, in particular, cortisol. One previous study showed that 80 percent of illness is stress-induced, so it stands to reason that if massage therapy can reduce stress, it can also improve the body's defense system against illness.
Naturally, massage therapy is not the only answer; it is a conjunctive therapy to many other valid and appropriate therapeutic avenues. Each person must find the right combination of therapies that best suits his or her needs.
Other Benefits of Massage
Massage works to boost immune system function by reducing anxiety and stress, increasing white blood cell counts, decreasing levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and activating disease-fighting cells. Massage can also decrease pain by relieving muscle spasms, cramps, general body tension, edema (swelling) and inflammation. It works by increasing the blood flow, which assists in the removal of toxins and increases oxygen and nutrients to affected areas.
Certain modalities can aid in relieving respiratory congestion by facilitating the removal of excess phlegm. Other techniques increase liver function by assisting in the removal of toxins and increasing blood flow. By improving muscle tone, massage also helps in the prevention or reduction of the muscular atrophy that can result from immobilization and inactivity. Other benefits include increasing red blood counts in cases of anemia, acting as a mechanical lymph drainage system by stimulating lymph circulation and speeding the elimination of wastes and toxins, and assisting in the post-surgical breakdown of scar tissue and adhesions.
Massage Philosophies East and West
There are two basic philosophies of massage therapy, western and eastern. In the western philosophy, massage is defined as the systematic manipulation of soft tissue for the purpose of affecting the muscular, circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, nervous, digestive, and visceral systems to produce therapeutic effects. This includes modalities such as Swedish, deep tissue, neuromuscular therapy, sports massage, and Alexander technique. In the eastern philosophy, the definition of massage is the balancing of Qi (energy) through the manipulation of the 12 energy meridians (channels), or of specific points on the meridians, to affect and promote proper body function. The various methods include Shiatsu, accupressure, and Qi Qiong. Each philosophy and type of massage has its place as a conjunctive therapy.
Which Type Is Right for You?
Since HIV/AIDS encompasses many types of infections and each infection calls for a different form of treatment, it would be impossible to cover all the pathologies and list the most appropriate form of massage for each. Instead the following are some general rules of thumb:
Any open lesions, inflamed area, or bacterial disease that can be spread through the circulatory system, should not receive direct pressure. Trigger point, accupressure, or any point-specific massage should be chosen instead. Energy work such as Qi Qiong can, however, be used in both bacterial disease and fever.
All forms of massage can relieve the effects of neuropathy.
Diarrhea needs deep abdominal or any work that increases activity of the intestinal tract. Massage of any of the other areas of the body could be helpful as well.
Finally, if at any point during the massage you experience dizziness, nausea, or illness, you should stop the therapist -- your body can flush only so many toxins at one time. Shorter duration massages may be in order.
Finding That Healing Touch
The demand for massage therapy far outweighs its availability for people living with HIV and AIDS. The 1999, King County Public Health Department's HIV/AIDS Care needs assessment survey found that alternative/non-Western therapies ranked seventh on consumers' lists of priority service needs. This category also showed the largest gap between consumers' desire for a service and their access to it.
Obtaining and paying for massage therapy, even for those with private insurance, is still extremely difficult. Most insurance plans allow for massage only for a small list of ailments and require a referral by a primary care physician. For those without insurance, or whose insurance will not cover massage for HIV/AIDS-related reasons, the high cost of massage therapy is often prohibitive.
In Touch at the Northwest Institute for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is one of the leading places for people with HIV/AIDS to get massage. Founded as a special project of the NW Massage Practitioners Association in 1984, In Touch provides free and low-cost massage to King County residents living with chronic, life-changing illnesses, including HIV infection.
The two part-time employees of In Touch coordinate over 70 volunteer massage therapists to provide more than 100 massage treatments per month. In Touch services are open to anyone, regardless of ability to pay. To contact In Touch about massage services, or to volunteer, call (206) 633-2419.
Delaney M. Toups Jr. LMP graduated from Blue Cliff Massage School in New Orleans, LA. in 1995. He has 2+ years of hospice experience, 4+ years of therapeutically massaging HIV/AIDS and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.