Nothing to sneeze at...
Clare La Plante, June 21, 2009
David Lies, a massage therapist in Wichita, Kansas, remembers his honeymoon well: The lush, nascent flowers and trees of early May in Eureka Springs, Arkansas; time relaxing with his new wife, Linda; the rustic honeymoon cottage—and his allergies, triggered by the colorful blooms around him. “I used to say that I was allergic to everything under the sun,” Lies says.
Lies discovered an unexpected ally in his allergy battle: The honeymoon cottage’s landlord, who was also a massage therapist. “He offered to give my wife and me massages,” says Lies, who finally said yes when his swollen eyes, nonstop sneezing and coughing fits started to put a damper on his honeymoon.
Lies remembers the horrible pain as the therapist dug his elbow into his back along the muscles and trigger points long contracted from coughing, sneezing and related stress. Just as he was about to cry uncle, the therapist removed his elbow—or so Lies thought as he thanked him. His wife, who was watching the session, laughed. “He hasn’t moved his elbow at all,” she told Lies. The muscles had simply finally relaxed.
After the massage, Lies made it through the week with just a few sniffles, his first nondrug-induced relief in years. He returned to Wichita inspired, enrolling in massage school and eventually opening A Servant’s Hands, a full-service massage therapy clinic with a special interest in allergies.
Not a bad specialty these days, it turns out.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthmas and Immunology, allergies affect more than 50 million Americans, making it the country’s fifth most chronic disease, third among children.
We spend around 7.9 billion dollars a year on treatment—about 4.5 million on direct care and 3.4 billion on indirect care, including lost work.
Allergies are, in the simplest sense, the body overachieving. “Your immune system is reacting to things it shouldn’t be reacting to,” says Leonard Bielory, MD, director of the Asthma & Allergy Research Center at New Jersey Medical School. “Your body goes on high alert against normally innocuous substances, like cat hair, pollen or peanuts.”
In this reaction the body’s mast cells, which are loaded with chemical-like histamines and other granules, break open and release these substances, which in turn hurt the body. The result can be everything from life-threatening anaphylactic shock to the more benign runny nose, foggy thinking and low-grade chronic cough. Of course, you can suffer in many other ways as well, including gas and bloating, eczema, sinusitis, earaches and headaches, and even joint pain, migraines and depression.
Relaxing the Symptoms
Many Americans rely primarily on conventional treatments, including antihistamines and steroids, both of which can have some adverse side effects. Massage therapists, however, can help relieve some allergy symptoms by reducing stress, increasing circulation, releasing muscle tension and reprogramming the body’s panic reaction, which can exacerbate symptoms.
“It’s not to take away from the biological, inflammatory component of the disorder,” says Rosalind Wright, MD, a pulmonist on staff at the Harvard Medical School. “But if you use complementary modalities, including massage therapy, you could optimize the results.”
Few studies researching massage therapy and allergy relief exist, but we do know massage helps with stress, as shown in the 1992 Touch Research Institute study where 30-minute body massages on depressed adolescents decreased saliva cortisol levels.
And stress definitely impacts allergies. A 2008 Harvard Medical School study co-authored by Wright showed that mothers-to-be who expose their unborn children to stress may increase these kids’ vulnerability to allergies and asthma.
Wright says that these stressors act like “social pollutants” breathed through the body, influencing the body’s immune response. “Just as you can breathe in an allergen like dust mites or ragweed, you can breathe in stress,” she says. “You take it into your body and it operates in similar types of pathways.”
So just getting clients to relax may help their allergies. “Most experienced massage therapists know the immediate relief from sinus congestion that can result from just lying face down,” Lies says. This position gives you a chance to work on the upper back and shoulders, where many sinus trigger points are located.
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