While most people take breathing for granted, it is a major struggle for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The acronym refers to various respiratory disorders involving blocked airflow, primarily chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Symptoms such as laboured breathing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, chronic coughing, and wheezing put inordinate stress on respiratory muscles, which can then result in other pains and conditions throughout the body, sometimes with extreme and unforeseen symptoms.
Although lung damage is irreversible, massage therapy can produce powerful benefits in alleviating stress in respiratory muscles. In a comprehensive massage school like OVCMT, students gain an in-depth understanding of the musculoskeletal systems most affected by various respiratory and other diseases, as well as specific massage therapy techniques that can significantly improve the quality of life of these patients.
Pulmonary disease results in a narrowing or stiffening of airways, physically impairing a patient’s ability to inhale air into their lungs. These serious structural changes in lung tissue are what differentiates the disease from asthma, which has otherwise similar symptoms. Cigarette smoke is the primary culprit of COPD but prolonged exposure to air pollution, industrial contaminants, and other irritants can contribute to its gradual development, which is typically diagnosed in middle-aged or older people.
Chronic irritation to the bronchioli, the passageways through which air passes to the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs, results in inflammation that damages lung elasticity and the cilia that move sticky mucus up to the pharynx. Excessive mucus accumulates to clog the smallest passageways and more effort is needed to exhale—a vicious cycle leading to further damage to the respiratory muscles and a higher risk of infection.
With damaged lungs and tissues, the heart must work harder to pump blood through the pulmonary circuit. Meanwhile, tissues starved for oxygen result in blood-thickening red blood cells and the degeneration of alveoli increase the chances of heart failure. Prolonged respiratory muscle tightness and shortening of the diaphragm can result in chest and lower back pain and pressure the oesophagus, which can affect digestion. Patients struggling to inhale oxygen also often experience neck strains and decreased rib cage mobility.
Registered massage therapists (RMTs) are likely to encounter numerous patients with COPD, who will greatly benefit from the simple relaxation of overworked muscles and relief of accumulated stress. Lying flat on the massage table may exacerbate breathing difficulties, so clients may feel more comfortable in a semi-reclining or seated position. In advanced stages of emphysema with cardiovascular issues, RMTs require caution with positioning and stimulating strokes. Students in massage courses know to also use caution with possible respiratory triggers like essential oils and scents.
Swedish massage and shiatsu with a focus on the most affected muscles combined with chest percussion can slowly relax the diaphragm and reduce unnecessary resistance in breathing patterns. Postural drainage will help fluid drain out of the lungs and fascial release can help stretch stiffened tissues of the thorax, intercostals and scalenes, and correct elevated ribs. Particularly sensitive areas can be addressed with standard trigger point techniques, as necessary.
Severe chronic respiratory issues may require ongoing treatment to ease symptoms but with careful, skilled bodywork, RMTs can gradually improve breathing patterns. By applying a strategic combination of techniques, graduates of massage college can work to decrease shortness of breath, improve forced vital capacity, reduce heart rate, and increase oxygen saturation in the blood, helping their clients literally breathe easier.
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