Learn / Yes, Massage Therapy Can Treat Addiction
Addiction affects every aspect of your being: mind, body, and spirit. As you lose yourself in drug abuse, these parts of your identity disconnect from each other. For some people, that disconnect has a major impact on physical health.
When you can’t tell how your body feels, you can’t care for it properly. You might ignore issues great and small, from hunger to serious medical symptoms. Or, you might start feeling like drug use is the solution to every problem. But that just isn’t sustainable.
If you choose a rehab program with massage therapy, you can get back in touch with your body during recovery. And when you feel safe inhabiting your own body, it’s much easier to make sense of your thoughts and feelings.
For most people, it’s easy to look forward to this treatment. Most types of massage feel good, both during and after the session. And you might just want to relax in between emotionally taxing talk therapy sessions. Massage lets you keep moving toward recovery, but feel like you’re taking a break.
More importantly, massage has many benefits for people in recovery.1 It can help people in treatment for depression, anxiety, and even eating disorders. Massage can even alleviate some of the symptoms associated with PTSD, like dissociation. And of course, it can also improve your physical health.
Massage has well-documented physical benefits for almost everyone. It can relieve muscle tension, joint pain, and more complex issues, like headaches. Massage therapists with some types of training can even treat serious chronic illnesses. But most people associate massage with pain relief.
Massage alleviates physical pain2 for a few reasons. On a mechanical level, it releases muscle tension and brings your joints into alignment. Over time, this teaches clients to maintain better body mechanics. Those healthy habits may protect you from future injuries.
On a neurochemical level, massage interrupts your nerves’ ability to process painful stimuli.3 Neutral or pleasurable touch stimulates the same nerve fibers that send pain signals. And according to the gate-control theory of pain, they can only process so much information at a time. As a result, being touched in a non-painful way can actually stop you from feeling pain.
This can be helpful for anyone, but it’s uniquely important for people with some addictions. Chronic pain often leads to opioid addiction.4 If you have both of these issues, you’ll need to learn healthier ways to manage your pain. Massage can help with that, in every stage of recovery.
When you stop using drugs, you might go through withdrawal. Depending on your specific health history, you may even attend a medical detox program. Supervised detox is essential if you’re healing from alcohol, benzodiazepine, or opioid abuse.
Data supports massage as a treatment for alcohol withdrawal.5 It’s no substitute for medical attention, but it can be a valuable aspect of your care plan. And in addition to its physical benefits, it may help you find emotional relief from the stress of detox.
There’s a fine line between physical and emotional health. In some holistic philosophies, they’re seen as one and the same. Depending where you go to rehab, you may be able to get a massage designed to treat mental health issues.
A growing body of research supports this application of massage therapy. Andy Bernay-Roman is both a massage therapist and mental health counselor. In his book, Deep Feeling, Deep Healing, he writes, “feelings are not disembodied experiences of some separate ‘mind’, but rather, are contained in a very physical biochemistry that modulates and marks every bodily event.”6 From this perspective, massage can have a direct impact on emotional well-being.
Addiction changes the way your brain’s reward system functions.7 The act of taking drugs releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Over time, that dysregulates your brain chemistry. If you have a serious addiction, drug use might be the only thing that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment.
Massage increases levels of dopamine,8 serotonin, and oxytocin. All three of these neurochemicals are related to good feelings:
Any of these effects can improve your mental health. But for people with addiction, dopamine regulation might be the most important. Massage doesn’t only help you feel better during the stress of residential treatment. It can also play a role in the neurochemical process of recovery.
Massage can reduce the severity of cravings.10 That’s especially true for people with certain addictions. For example, self-massage can help you quit smoking. Some types of bodywork may even decrease opioid cravings.11 More research is needed on this subject, but the available data is promising.
Cravings can be both physical and psychological.12 But because massage affects both your body and mind, it can protect against relapse in either case. Over time, this can empower you to build a more stable life—and sense of self.
Receiving a massage is a deeply personal experience. As the provider draws your attention to your own body, you may notice areas of tension or pain for the first time. And that’s not only a physical process. It can also happen on an emotional level.
Massage improves self-awareness13 and mindfulness. Cynthia Price, Ph.D. and L.M.T., writes that “by paying attention to thoughts, feelings, sensations—our internal life—we become more aware of internal cues and thus more able to engage in self-care.” And self-care is an essential part of ongoing addiction recovery. In this process, you’ll learn how to meet your own needs in a sustainable way. That often means letting go of things you want—or things you’re craving—to make room for better habits.
Self-care is hard work, but it can also be comforting. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) reports that “all addictions are about self-soothing.” So are most types of massage.14 Bodywork helps people in recovery unwind in a safe way. And “giving them a pathway with which they can connect to their bodies can be enormously empowering,” AMTA experts explain. This is especially helpful if you’re healing from trauma.
Addiction is usually related to trauma. Some people start taking drugs to self-medicate PTSD. And no matter what led to your drug use, addiction also causes trauma.15 These experiences can leave you with both physical and mental health concerns.
Massage can treat the symptoms of trauma.16 It relieves pain, depression, anxiety, and irritability. It can also mitigate more complex issues, like dissociation and isolation.
When you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself or your surroundings. This survival strategy is usually a symptom of trauma. If it’s not safe to be in your own body, your mind creates a sense of distance. During a traumatic event, this is adaptive. But in response to a trigger, it can range from being inconvenient to putting you in real danger. Dissociating while you’re watching a movie might be frustrating. But dissociating while you’re driving a car is a serious problem.
Massage reduces dissociative symptoms17 in clients with a history of trauma. This treatment helps you reconnect with your body, on your own terms. You can also practice setting boundaries that feel right to you. That skill keeps you safe in your own body, and it empowers you to build healthier relationships.
Touch is a form of communication. Even if you don’t speak, you’ll communicate with your massage therapist throughout every session. You might tense up if they use too much pressure, or wiggle your fingers if your hand falls asleep. They’ll even notice when the rhythm of your breathing changes. And that will inform how they communicate with you.
Massage teaches you how to connect with another person in a structured way. Treatment is interpersonal, but not social. You’ll learn to describe your boundaries clearly, and answer questions about yourself. And if you forget to say something, you’ll be able to mention it during the massage. There’s plenty of space for you to make mistakes, correct them, and try again in your next session.
Trauma can make you feel like you don’t have control over your own life. When you have an addiction, that might even be true. During rehab, massage can show you how it feels to have authority over your own body. You have the right to set clear boundaries. And in any modality of massage, you can trust that your therapist will respect them, and act in your best interest.
Most cultures have developed their own styles of massage therapy. And many of these are now popular worldwide. But if you’d like to get a certain type of massage during recovery, make sure to ask whether it’s available at your rehab.
This is one of the most common forms of massage in the Western world. When you go to a day spa in the U.S., for example, you can assume it offers Swedish massage unless otherwise specified.
Swedish massage uses long, gentle strokes to relax the body.18 It may also include some invigorating movements, like kneading or tapping. Many massage therapists have training in both Swedish massage and other modalities. They may even combine different approaches during a session. For example, many deep tissue massages begin with Swedish techniques. These lighter strokes function as a warm-up before the therapist applies deeper pressure.
Deep tissue massage is very popular, even though it’s not a formalized treatment modality. These sessions are less relaxing, and more focused on solving specific problems. If you have acute pain, or chronic pain caused by a muscle injury, this approach might be a good fit for you.
Thai massage is very different from most Western techniques.19 This form of bodywork is more active than Swedish massage, for example. Both the practitioner and the client are fully clothed throughout the session. Your provider will use their hands, feet, knees, and elbows to perform various stretches and compressions.
Thai massage is ideal for people who want to improve their mobility. It can also be relaxing, but it’s unlikely that you’ll fall asleep during a session. The providers at Jintara Wellness Center and Rehab, in Chiang Mai, offer massage as one aspect of holistic recovery.20 Treatments are designed to improve your physical fitness and energy levels. You can expect to move around during these sessions, instead of lying still on a table.
Ayurvedic massage originated in India, and is available at many rehabs there. At Abhasa Rehabilitation Center – Coimbatore, for example, this style of massage is an important part of recovery. Sessions include the use of special oils and herbs, tailored to meet each client’s needs. This combination of physical touch and aromatherapy activates your “sensory and olfactory organs21 through sweet and subtle fragrances, thus rejuvenating the mind, body, and spirit.”
This type of bodywork is an aspect of Ayurvedic medicine. You may receive massage in combination with other therapies, as part of a larger care plan. Whether you’re getting holistic Ayurvedic treatment or not, make sure to talk to your healthcare team before an Ayurvedic massage. It may have wide-ranging benefits–but it may not be the right treatment for you. It depends on your personal health history.
Massage is hugely beneficial for most clients. But this treatment shouldn’t be taken lightly. It has a significant impact on your physical and mental health, and even your body chemistry. This can be an issue for people with certain health issues, including addiction. Make sure to talk to your care team before getting any type of bodywork.
Massage therapists are trained to recognize both local and absolute contraindications.22 In layman’s terms, a contraindication is a reason not to give someone a massage. With a local contraindication, like a papercut, the therapist will skip that body part. An absolute contraindication means the person shouldn’t get treatment at all.
These standards may be different in various traditions of bodywork. One issue may be an absolute contraindication in Thai massage, but treatable in the Ayurvedic style. And some of these concerns might surprise you. For example, most Western styles include the following contraindications:
Some of these conditions might not seem serious. Many people even schedule massages because of them. For example, if you have a mild cold, bodywork might sound comforting. It’s your therapist’s job to protect your health by setting clear boundaries. To help them do that, you should give them as much information about your own health as possible. That way, they can make decisions that keep both of you safe.
Massage is absolutely contraindicated while you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.22 These providers are highly trained, but they’re not doctors. If you have a bad reaction to a drug during the session, they might not know how to help.
Drug use also interferes with your ability to communicate. During the intake conversation, you might forget to share important information. And during the massage itself, you may respond differently than you would while sober. But nonverbal communication is an essential part of massage. If the therapist can’t understand what your body is telling them, they can’t properly treat you.
It’s especially dangerous to get a massage when you’ve been drinking.26 Because treatment increases circulation, it amplifies the effects of alcohol. This can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning. And in addition, alcohol acts as a pain reliever. This makes it even more dangerous to get bodywork.
Taking painkillers of any kind can interfere with a massage.27 This still applies when you take them as prescribed, or use mild medications like Advil. Because these drugs dull your senses, you might not know if the therapist is using too much pressure. As a result, they might accidentally injure you. But if you’re taking painkillers as directed, you might still be able to get a gentle massage. Tell your therapist in advance, so they can decide whether it’s safe.
Through massage, you can get to know yourself again. Reconnecting with your body will give you new insight into your own needs. And that insight empowers you to build a life you love.
Connect with a rehab that offers massage therapy to learn more about the styles of body work they offer, other available treatments, pricing, and more.
Anderson, S., Haun, J., & Neufeld, A. (2012, September 7). A Mind-Body Intervention with Massage Helps Treat Substance Abuse. Massage Today. https://www.massagetoday.com/articles/14666/A-Mind-Body-Intervention-with-Massage-Helps-Treat-Substance-Abuse
Therapeutic massage for pain relief. (2016, July 1). Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-integrative-health/therapeutic-massage-for-pain-relief
Adams, R., White, B., & Beckett, C. (2010). The effects of massage therapy on pain management in the acute care setting. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, 3(1), 4–11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091428/
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Reader, M., Young, R., & Connor, J. P. (2005). Massage therapy improves the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 11(2), 311–313. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2005.11.311
Bernay-Roman, A. (2011). Deep Feeling, Deep Healing (2nd ed.). Spectrum Healing Press. (Original work published 2001)
Di Chiara, G., & Bassareo, V. (2007). Reward system and addiction: What dopamine does and doesn’t do. Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 7(1), 69–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coph.2006.11.003
Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. The International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10), 1397–1413. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207450590956459
Morhenn, V., Beavin, L. E., & Zak, P. J. (2012). Massage increases oxytocin and reduces adrenocorticotropin hormone in humans. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 18(6), 11–18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23251939/
Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., & Hart, S. (1999). Smoking cravings are reduced by self-massage. Preventive Medicine, 28(1), 28–32. https://doi.org/10.1006/pmed.1998.0372
Hu, W.-L., Tsai, M.-C., Kuo, C.-E., Liu, C.-T., Wu, S.-Y., Wu, T.-C., & Hung, Y.-C. (2022). Laser meridian massage decreased craving in men with opioid use disorder on methadone maintenance treatment. Biomedical Journal, 45(2), 414–423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bj.2021.04.010
Sharma, S., Nepal, B., Moon, C. S., Chabenne, A., Khogali, A., Ojo, C., Hong, E., Gaudet, R., Sayed-Ahmad, A., Jacob, A., Murtuza, M., & Firlit, M. (2014). Psychology of craving. Open Journal of Medical Psychology, 2014. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojmp.2014.32015
Interoceptive awareness helps your clients help themselves. (2016, October 1). MASSAGE Magazine. https://www.massagemag.com/interoceptive-awareness-helps-your-clients-help-themselves-40527/
Massage and addiction | massage therapy journal. (n.d.). American Massage Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/publications/massage-therapy-journal/massage-and-addiction/
Chilcoat, H. D., & Breslau, N. (1998). Posttraumatic stress disorder and drug disorders: Testing causal pathways. Archives of General Psychiatry, 55(10), 913–917. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.55.10.913
In safe hands: Massage & ptsd | massage therapy journal. (n.d.). American Massage Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/publications/massage-therapy-journal/massage-and-ptsd/
Price, C. (2007). Dissociation reduction in body therapy during sexual abuse recovery. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 13(2), 116–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2006.08.004
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Versagi, C. M. (2008, March 1). When Is It Safe to Treat a Patient Taking Antibiotics? Massage Today. https://www.massagetoday.com/articles/13764/When-Is-It-Safe-to-Treat-a-Patient-Taking-Antibiotics
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