There’s the Rub

Can a massage cure your ills?

Say the word “massage” and most people imagine a person lying naked beneath a sheet while a spa worker slathers her in oil, New Age Peruvian flutes trilling quietly in the background. And though many massages are like that, there are innumerable varieties that are completely different: myofascial release, reflexology, lymphatic drainage, structural integration, shiatsu, Swedish. (New Age music seems to be a constant in almost all forms.) I’d had a few massages before, mainly at my gym, but I wanted to know what the more esoteric varieties involved and whether they could improve the mild low-back pain I’d suffered since college.

According to The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook, there are five loose categories that the various forms of massage fall into: 1) integrating your muscles and learning to move your body; 2) gentle touching with profound results; 3) releasing particular points of stress; 4) massaging stress away from your muscles; and 5) healing with energy. I tried one from each group—except healing with energy, which includes things like Reiki. (Since there’s no actual touching, it doesn’t count as massage in my book.) Caveat: I relied on a single experience and took it to be representative of the whole, which is, of course, unfair. But no actual customer is going to base her idea on massage any differently.

Rolfing ($100 for an hour)

What It’s Like

The idea of going to a stranger’s office, stripping naked, and getting vigorously worked over—I was familiar with Rolfing’s reputation as seriously painful—was a tad intimidating. So I was glad when Jamie, the certified advanced Rolfer I’d found through a friend, said I’d remain clothed in shorts and a tank top.

Before starting, Jamie explained to me what he was going to do: Release adhesions in my fascia. What’s that, you say? Fascia is the tissue that covers your muscles, and Rolfers believe it gets tight in places over time due to stress and gravity. So he dug in between muscles and rubbed places where he could feel that the fascia was not moving properly, returning it to its proper supple state. The session itself focused almost entirely on my shoulders, upper back, and arms, which is standard for the first session of Rolfing. (They encourage you to do a series of 10 sessions, with each session focusing on a different area of the body.) It really felt like he was moving muscles around—he’d go in very deep in the backs of my arms and under my shoulder blades, pushing quite hard. This digging around was somewhat painful. Not awful, but painful.

Afterward my body felt significantly different. I felt like I could breathe deeper and like I was standing straighter. My head wasn’t sinking into my neck as much as it usually does. I left the office feeling like my body had been changed, and the sensation lasted a few days.

What It’s Supposed To Do

Also known as “structural integration,” Rolfing is “a system of deep muscular manipulation and movement education” that reduces the “rigidity and tightness of the body’s soft tissue,” according to The Bodywork and Massage Sourcebook. The 10-session course not only frees up your fascia but works toward integrating all the muscles in your body and improving posture.

Quack Factor

Low. According to Dr. Rosenfeld’s Guide to Alternative Medicine, an excellent book for separating the wheatgrass from the chaff, a UCLA study showed Rolfing to have many tangible benefits, such as a greater range of motion and better posture.

Craniosacral Therapy ($80 for one hour)

What It’s Like After the intense prodding and muscle manipulation of Rolfing, this was unexpectedly mild. My practitioner, Nicholas, worked out of a room in the back of his home decorated with acupuncture charts and books with titles like Visceral Manipulation and The Thorax. I’d found him through the American Massage Therapy Association’s very handy “Find a Massage Therapist”page.

Once again I remained clothed, and after a posture analysis I lay face up on the table. The majority of the session was spent with his hands under my head, the back of my neck, and my sacrum (tailbone). He made very slight movements with his fingertips that caused tingling sensations on the back of my head and then ripples of tingling under my skin in the rest of my body. At one point my arm jerked for no apparent reason, as did my leg at another point.

Though I started out peppering Nicholas with questions on what he was doing, as time wore on I found it hard to focus on asking questions, and eventually gave up, hypnotized by the quiet New Age music. After the session I felt deeply relaxed. He asked me to drink a lot of water to rid myself of metabolic waste that would have been released by the treatment.

What It’s Supposed To Do

Craniosacral therapists claim everybody has a pulse in the fluid surrounding the brain and spine, and by adjusting the flow back to its proper rhythm, they can cure a host of ailments.

Quack Factor

High. Adjusting the flow of your craniosacral fluid sounds great, but traditional doctors don’t even recognize that this fluid has a pulse. It has no pump, the way, say, the heart pumps blood. Dr. Rosenfeld writes of craniosacral therapy, “I do not buy the theory about fluid movement and manipulation,” and adds that scientific studies of its supposed benefits are entirely inconclusive.

Shiatsu ($80 for one hour)

What It’s Like

When I showed up for my appointment with Randy, whom I’d contacted through a local “healing arts” center, he led me back to his office and I was greeted with a strong smell that I took for incense until I realized, “That’s not incense—that’s pot!”

Nevertheless, Randy was quite lucid and cut a dashing figure in his blue gi, Fu Manchu moustache, and pirate earring. He gave me a set of scrubs to wear, making this the third non-naked massage I’d gotten so far. The room had a Japanese scroll along with the seemingly ubiquitous acupuncture charts and New Age music (though this time it had an Asian tinge to it).

Unlike the previous two sessions, which had been conducted on massage tables, this one was conducted on a set of thick futon-like mats on the floor. And instead of lying down, I began the session sitting cross-legged while he knelt behind me and pressed deeply into points on my shoulders and back. Next I lay on my side and he really dug in deep into my hips with the points of his elbows. Finally I lay on my stomach while he used his feet on my back and legs. Walking-on-the-back massages performed by tiny Asian women are a crusty old chestnut (see Charlie’s Angels for a recent update); having it done by a 200-pound pot-smoking white dude with a Fu Manchu mustache was a new twist. Like Rolfing, it was painful, but in a good way.

What It’s Supposed To Do

Unlike most Western massage, shiatsu relies on the idea of the body having “meridians”—zones of a sort, which are also a part of acupuncture. In fact, shiatsu is sometimes called acupressure. Applying pressure to certain points along these meridians frees the flow of qi (life energy) and brings balance to your body.

Quack Factor

Low. Many Western doctors recognize that acupuncture has some medical value, though they don’t understand its mechanism. This respectability transfers somewhat to shiatsu, acupuncture’s less invasive sister.

Swedish ($60 for one hour)

What It’s Like

After three massages, this was the first one that conformed to the mental image of the greased up and naked massage. During my appointment at a local day spa I’d seen advertised, my practitioner, Kate, applied pressure along the length of the muscles in my back and legs while Enya played softly in the background. Occasionally she would shake or smack the part she was working on. Afterward I felt relaxed, but the relaxation dissipated quickly. Of the types I’d tried, this one seemed to have the mildest and fastest dissipating effects.

A common offshoot of Swedish massage is Sports massage ($60 for one hour). At my session in a physical rehab clinic, my practitioner, Wendy, gave me a long talk about exercises I could do to alleviate low back pain and shoulder tension (the two problems I’d described to each masseuse). The massage consisted mainly of compression of my muscles along with some oiled strokes like the ones from the Swedish massage. But the most shocking part was when she dragged out “the thumper,” a machine that she used to thump the bejezus out of my butt and lower back. Wendy said true sports massage is primarily done before a competition to warm you up and right after competition to help remove lactic acid. It’s done with no oil to get blood flowing to muscles. So what I received was really a combination of Swedish and sports. In fact, many practitioners borrow techniques from the various disciplines.

What It’s Supposed To Do

“Swedish massage is designed to produce feelings of well-being” because it “helps the body eliminate toxins, improves blood and lymph circulation, increases range of motion in the joints, and alleviates muscle tension and soreness” according to the Massage and Bodywork Sourcebook, while sports massage is “designed to spread constricted muscle fibers in order to increase circulation of blood to muscle tissue,” maximize performance, and decrease recovery time.

Quack Factor

Low, but don’t believe all the hype, especially the talk of “toxins.” What are these toxins or the “metabolic waste” my craniosacral therapist described? Are they accepted by the medical establishment? In Dr. Rosenfeld’s “How To Spot a Quack” chapter, he specifically warns of treatments that “claim to ‘cleanse’ the body of ‘poisons’ and ‘toxins’ or ‘strengthen your immune system.’ There’s no such cleanser or strengthener, except for good nutrition.”

So if it doesn’t remove toxins, what does it do for you? My low back pain improved significantly while writing this article, but who knows if it will return now that this plum assignment is complete. A study published in the April issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that massage was a more effective treatment for chronic back pain than acupuncture and self-help remedies.

My experience was that while massage can alleviate back pain and give temporary feelings of relaxation, its effects were just that: temporary. Of all the types I tried, the ones I’m most likely to go back to are Swedish and Rolfing. In terms of a relaxing experience, Swedish won hands down. But for actual physical improvement, Rolfing was the only one that left me with a sense of lasting change. Even though it was significantly more expensive than other forms, it’s the one I’d try again.