Alternative Therapy Spotlight: Therapeutic Massage

The most effective treatment in suppressing viral load is antiretroviral therapy (ART). However, some ART drugs can cause uncomfortable side effects, and living with HIV can take its toll on an individual’s social, emotional and mental well-being. Complementary therapies can effectively address the side effects or consequences of living with HIV and active HIV treatment. UNM Truman Health Services offers a number of complementary therapies, including therapeutic massage.

Understanding Therapeutic Massage

Therapeutic massage is the systematic manipulation of soft tissues (skin, muscles and connective tissues) using various levels of pressure, strokes and other techniques. Therapeutic massage may be applied to the entire body or focus on specific areas where tension is causing pain and/or contributing to compensatory movements that are pulling (or may pull) the body out of natural alignment.

The practice of therapeutic massage is regulated by the state health board, and to get the

full health benefits of massage, you should always see a trained and licensed massage therapist.

How Therapeutic Massage Complements Conventional HIV Treatment

Therapeutic massage can enhance conventional HIV treatment by boosting natural immune function and promoting mental and emotional health.

In regards to physiological function, therapeutic massage promotes health by:

  • Accelerating and increasing venous blood drainage
    Your arteries—the vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your organs and tissues—are made up of elastic material that helps push blood through with each pump of your heart. Veins, on the other hand, do not expand and contract in the same way. Instead, veins have tiny valves that keep the blood from backflowing until residual pressure from your heart’s pumping action move blood forward to be reoxygenated in the lungs. Blood circulation from the force created by your heart’s pumping is aided by skeletal muscles that contract and squeeze the veins. This muscle contraction can be achieved through exercise or passively through therapeutic massage. The result is blood that more quickly carries toxins away from your tissues and delivers oxygen and nutrients to your cells.
  • Accelerating and increase lymph drainage
    Like veins, your lymphatic system relies on valves and surrounding pressure to circulate lymph—the clear fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells, fats and proteins. Lymph must circulate to both move infection-fighting cells where they are needed to attack pathogens and remove toxins from your tissues. Therapeutic massage can assist the movement of lymph through the manipulation of deep muscle and connective tissues.
  • Passively exercising muscles
    Most therapeutic massage practices involve passive exercises, such as slow circling movements of ankles, wrists and shoulders, which help improve range of motion in those joints. Passive exercises can gently ease muscle soreness, a common complaint of HIV patients.
  • Breaking down mineral deposits in soft tissues for easier elimination from your body
    Excess minerals, primarily calcium, are frequently deposited in tissues, often as a response to chronic stress (marked by consistently high cortisol levels). These deposits harden tissues; they may contribute to the formation of “knots” you feel in your muscles (which, oddly enough, are neither knots nor in the muscles). Therapeutic massage physically breaks down these deposits so that they can be expelled by the tissues and taken away by lymphatic and/or blood circulation. Like passive exercises, breaking down calcium deposits relieves muscle soreness.

In regards to mental and emotional health, therapeutic massage benefits HIV patients by:

  • Increasing oxytocin
    Caring human touch signals the release of oxytocin, the body’s natural bonding hormone. Oxytocin boosts one’s sense of connection to others (combatting feelings of loneliness), engenders trust and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression (which research is beginning to link to oxytocin’s role in reducing inflammation in the digestive system).
  • Releasing endorphins
    Therapeutic massage stimulates the production of endorphins, one of the chemicals in your brain that produces feelings of generalized happiness and well-being.
  • Reducing stress
    Therapeutic massage helps to lower stress through both chemical and mechanical means. The hormones released in response to caring human touch produce a chemical environment that allows your brain to focus on the positive and cease worrying. Mechanically, therapeutic massage releases tension and lowers blood pressure, providing more signals to your brain that your mind and body are well.

Although not a substitute for a healthy social network, therapeutic massage can provide the much-needed touch and human connection people living with HIV need to prevent or relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety and other stress disorders.

Where to Get Therapeutic Massage

UNM Truman Health Services offers therapeutic massage by licensed therapists specially trained to work on patients undergoing HIV treatment. Or, you may speak with your insurance provider or primary care physician about other massage therapists in the Albuquerque community.