May 30, 2011

Massage for Clients with Allergies

According to findings published in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, more than fifty percent of the U.S. population is sensitive to one or more allergens. Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, found that 54.3% of individuals aged 6-59 years old demonstrated a positive allergic response to at least one of the ten most common allergens.

An allergic reaction to any given substance can be either local or systemic.

Some typical local responses to allergens include:
• Swelling and itching of the nasal mucosa, including a stuffy or runny nose

• Eye redness, burning and itching 

• Pain or fullness of the ears

• Various skin rashes

• Headaches

A systemic allergic response is called anaphylaxis. Depending on the severity of the allergic reaction, anaphylaxis can include:
• Bronchoconstriction

• Edema

• Hypotension

• Coma

• Death

Immunity and Allergy Link
The immune system is primarily responsible for someone’s susceptibility to allergies. The role of the immune system’s lymphocytes is to protect our bodies from invaders. To disarm a harmful substance, lymphocytes produce antibodies specific to the foreign invader it encounters. Allergies are the result of the immune system mistakenly tagging a normally benign substance as foreign and producing antibodies to that substance, triggering an allergic response.

Stress Weakens Immunity
Humans are constantly exposed to illness-causing bacteria and viruses, but are able to resist infection with the help of a strong immune system. It is a well-documented fact that stress lowers a person’s immunity. Most of us recognize feeling ‘run-down’ or ‘stressed-out’ as a product of not taking care of ourselves properly with enough sleep, proper nutrition, etc. From a physiological perspective, the stress and immune system relationship has many ties. Two examples are listed below:

• Stress increases the adrenal gland's production of cortisol, spurring the sympathetic nervous system to overproduce epinephrine and norepinephrine. An oversupply of these hormones reduces the immune system's effectiveness.

• Stress lowers the level of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), a neurotransmitter that keeps air passageways open and prevents the brain from ordering an attack-the-allergens response.
How a Bodyworker can Help
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research demonstrated that regular and sustained massage sessions improve immune system function. This study concluded that the effects of long-term massage include reduced depression and hostility, as well as increased dopamine levels, serotonin values, natural killer cell number, and lymphocytes. In another study by Gail Ironson, M.D., regular massage treatments resulted in an increase in serotonin and natural killer cells. Serotonin and natural killer cells are often viewed as the first line of defense in the immune system. While these studies represent a narrow aspect of the human immune system, they do demonstrate massage therapy’s capability of supporting and improving immune system health and function.

Some specific techniques massage therapists can utilize to reduce the impact of a client’s stress level and strengthen their immunity to combat allergies are:

Lymphatic Drainage Massage – Manual manipulation and draining of the lymph system directly supports immune system function, and can have a powerful effect in reducing a person’s allergic response.

Abdominal Massage – Manual manipulation of the abdomen contributes to a properly operating gastrointestinal system. Many schools of thought endorse gastrointestinal health as the foundation of the immune system.

Swedish Massage – Swedish massage techniques are well-reputed for encouraging relaxation and dissipating stress. These effects reduce the load on an immune system, rendering it more capable of optimum functioning.

Aromatherapy – While specific requirements must be met to safely practice with essential oils, using aromatherapy to strengthen immunity or reduce allergic symptoms can be of enormous therapeutic benefit. Three examples include:

1. Cedarwood oil is deeply relaxing to the bronchial area, slows down rapid breathing in asthma, calms allergic reactions and helps the chest muscles relax to open the lungs for more air.

2. Chamomile essential oil is particularly soothing and can help topically for allergic skin reactions.

3. While typically known as soothing and calming, lavender oil also has an anti-inflammatory effect. It is useful for allergies by helping reduce stress and calming symptoms of an inflammatory allergic response.

With half of the U.S. population suffering from mild to severe allergies, the ability to support allergy-prone clients can add tremendous value to a massage therapist’s practice. By learning and incorporating the techniques listed above, bodyworkers can rightfully take their place in the world of allergy and immunology.

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